The world downside up, by Lisa Åkesson

Mainstream European media portrays Angola as a country characterized by extraordinary economic growth, widespread corruption, a questionable democracy, a state totally dominated by the ruling MPLA party and glaring inequalities between the poor and the rich. This is a valid picture, but there are other stories to be told. If I compare the capital city of Luanda of today with the Luanda I used to know when I worked here more than twenty years ago, the first thing that comes to my mind is the absence of watchful soldiers and heavy military vehicles. Since 2002 peace has been stable. This means that mothers do not have to worry about their 16 years old sons being sent to the frontier. It also means that millions of persons no longer flee across the country to Luanda. Instead citizens of Luanda take the opportunity to visit relatives in other provinces, and goods and commodities circulate more easily. World Bank statistics indicate that in 1992, one of the worst years of the war, life expectancy at birth in Angola was as low as 41 years. Since then this figure has increased by 25% to 51 years in 2012. There are still enormous problems in the health and education sectors, but the peace in itself has brought a better life to many people after more than three decades years of war. An important reason behind the stability of the peace is the government’s direct access to natural resources, primarily in the form of oil and diamonds, which has made it possible for them to buy the loyalty of former rebel soldiers and their officers. Low ranking former UNITA rebels have been given income opportunities, sometimes as guards in private security companies, and in comparison with their past as UNITA soldiers, most of them live better today. Former UNITA generals have been afforded with a slice of the country’s wealth, for instance in the form of concessions to diamond mines, and they have been incorporated into the national army. Another important reason behind the stability is that the MPLA government has been wise enough to avoid publicly humiliating the defeated UNITA militaries. Instead, the MPLA rhetoric has focused on the party’s capacity to bring peace to the people.

In Luanda of today, peace is generally taken for granted, which in itself is a major step forward. What people talk about, rather, are the exorbitant costs of living. The low productivity in all national sectors, except the oil industry, in combination with the presence of foreign oil companies, which are prepared to pay almost anything for everything, has pushed prices to extraordinary levels. According to people I met there are oil companies paying USD 2.500 per day for an apartment. For ordinary people, it is nearly impossible to afford a place to live. Today, money rules in a totalitarian way, which certainly implies that living in poverty is more stigmatized than ever. A capitalismo selvagem (savage capitalism) dominates Luanda and has led to increasing social tensions in family networks and between generations.

Another tangible trend is the presence of Portuguese immigrants, probably numbering more than 200.000 persons. Since the times of Portuguese colonial rule there have always been Portuguese in Angola, even though hundreds of thousands left when Angola gained independence in 1975. The last years, however, the Angolans have witnessed a veritable flow of Portuguese migrants, pushed by the economic crisis in Portugal, and pulled by the growth in Angola, which in some Portuguese media has been portrayed as a veritable El Dorado, where it is easy to become rich and life is full of new and exotic pleasures. In migration research, this is an imaginary that is well-known from African utopic visions of European countries of immigration.

The Portuguese migrants are a very heterogeneous group, but in terms of their family relations to Angola they can roughly be divided into three categories.* First there are the Portuguese-Portuguese, who have no former ties to Angola. Many of them are male and have come to work for Portuguese construction companies that started to establish themselves in Angola some years after the peace agreement in 2002. Others are young Portuguese with a university education, who cannot find a job at home. In Luanda they work for instance in telecom and banking. Some of them have left in search of adventure and new experiences, while others feel they had no other choice but to leave Portugal.

Secondly, there are the Portuguese-Angolans. Some of them were born in Angola, while others have parents who lived there before 1975. This means that they generally have some kind of connections to Angolans, and in some cases to the political and economic elite in Luanda. All since colonial times, the ties between rich and influential Portuguese and Angolan families are manifold and strong. Some of the Portuguese-Angolans have managed to acquire Angolan citizenship through their family links, which is a very important asset in a country where the acquisition of a labour visa is a complicated and slow process that sometimes includes payments of bribes.

Thirdly, there are the Angolan – Portuguese, that is Angolan migrants, and their children, who have spent many years in Portugal, but now are returning in search of better opportunities and a re-connection with their (ancestral) homeland. Some of the Angolan-Portuguese are highly educated, while others have little formal training from Portugal. For some members of this category, the reintegration in Angola is slower and more painful than they expected. Those who have stayed behind in Angola sometimes meet the returnees with suspicion, and accuse them of having deserted Angola during the years of hardship and now returning only in order to benefit from the recent economic boom.

How do then Angolans view these new Portuguese labour migrants? According to the people I met the reaction is quite mixed. Elderly people with little schooling may sometimes express an inherited reverence for the former colonial masters, whereas younger people tend to be more critical. A common perception is that many Portuguese have questionable professional qualifications, take the best jobs and receive salaries that are many times higher than the Angolans. One Portuguese informant said that the (Angolan) company where he is employed pays 8-10 times more for him than for an Angolan employee. The reason for this is not only that he receives a much higher salary, but also the fact that his terms of employment includes free housing, a car and social security fees. This is usually the case for expat workers, and as Luanda is the most expensive capital in the world, houses, cars and health insurances are incredibly costly. Some highly skilled Angolans also lament the fact that there is unemployment in their own circles, whereas both Angolan and international companies recruit Portuguese professionals without paying attention to the existence of skilled Angolan professionals. The Angolan government’s management of the national labour power is more or less non-existent, and there is no strategy for recruitment of international professionals (or unskilled workers for that matter). Another common complaint concerns Portuguese racist attitudes. This may refer both to covert everyday practices, such as refusals to give way to a car driven by a black person, and to open disregard.

During the last weeks the high level relationship between Angola and Portugal has deteriorated. In his speech to the nation on October 15th the Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos said, “It is only with Portugal that things are not good” and threatened to cancel the planned negotiations on a special Portuguese-Angolan partnership. This caused immediate concern among Portuguese politicians as well as in the Portuguese community in Angola. The reasons for Eduardo dos Santos’ disapproval of Portugal seems to be the ongoing Portuguese investigation against highly placed Angolan politicians, among them the Vice Minister Manuel Vicente, who are suspected of money laundering and fiscal fraud in relation to some of their investments in Portugal. The Portuguese government may not be able to stop the juridical process, but they are certainly doing what they can in order to downplay the importance of it. The Portuguese President Cavaco Silva called a press conference immediately after José Eduardo dos Santos’ speech and said that it all was a “misunderstanding” and that the Angolan leaders “merit all our respect”. In the world of today, Angola has the upper hand and Portugal has to comply. This is the world downside up.

*I want to express my sincere thanks to Filomena Andrade for suggesting this categorization.

Lisa Åkesson is Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute and has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Gothenburg. She has carried out research on cultural meanings of migration, on transnational families and everyday practices, on human trafficking, on Swedish multiculturalisn, on transnational mothering, migrant remittances and on return migration in policy and practice. Lisa Åkesson has carried out fieldwork in Cape Verde, Sweden and the United States. – See more at: http://www.nai.uu.se/research/researchers/lisa-akesson/#sthash.vcXl8kep.dpuf

This entry was posted in Emerging African middle class, Migration and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The world downside up, by Lisa Åkesson

  1. Mbuanza says:

    Very well written piece. I do believe that this is a temporary situation. Portugal is fundamentally a wealthier country than Angola. I am not so sure Portugal would have been so cordial in more comfortable times. On the other hand, either Portugal’s judicial system really is a politicised body, or Dos Santos really had a point in his grievance. After all, they dropped the case against the Vice President.

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