In Oil-Rich Angola, the Poor Must Leave Slums

The authorities’ clearance plan is going smoothly this time
Boa Vista, Luanda: The government is giving slum residents $150 per square meter of their current accommodations to relocate Photograph by Getty Images

Francisco Antonio, a bricklayer, smiles while his children remove furniture ahead of the government bulldozers ready to flatten his concrete house. Then four youths suddenly appear, mug a reporter, and grab his mobile phone. Antonio scrambles for cover. After the muggers are gone, the interview resumes. Antonio and his family are being moved out of one of Angola’s most dangerous slums. “Crime is a big issue here,” says the self-employed father of six who’s lived for 25 years in Sambizanga, a hillside settlement that’s one of the poorest parts of Luanda, the capital. “Some people may not agree, but what the government is doing is good.” (Police nabbed the thieves; the reporter got his phone back.)

Razing the slums in the capital region will make way for Angola’s expanding middle class
Getty Images

The Angolan government has been clearing the slums of Luanda off and on since 2001, as a 27-year-long civil war wound to a close, after sending millions of Angolans into the city for refuge. The cleared land is used for roads and industry, and offers prime real estate for Angola’s growing middle class. The plan is to flatten the neighborhoods and relocate the inhabitants inland. The authorities are moving Sambizanga’s residents to the Zango development zone, which has new housing about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. Slum clearance began in 2001 with the Boa Vista neighborhood being bulldozed after rainy season landslides killed residents. Advocacy groups such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the removals, calling them forced evictions without warning or adequate compensation. Residents ended up in tents before their houses were built.

The government of José Eduardo dos Santos seems to have learned its lesson. It’s giving slum residents the choice of a new house or cash—the equivalent of $150 per square meter of their current accommodation, according to residents. Anitemia Fernandes is an unemployed 24-year-old who was moved to a two-bedroom house in Zango from a dwelling half that size in Sambizanga. Her new one-story home is made of purple concrete (each residential block has its own color) and has indoor plumbing and a small yard. The government shipped belongings and bused new residents into Zango in a “process handled very well,” she says. In past clearances people were treated like “cattle in trucks.” The several thousand people already living in Zango take a train or minibus taxi to work in Luanda—if they work. The jobless rate exceeds 20 percent.

Luanda, which had half a million people before Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, is jammed with more than 6 million residents today. More than two-thirds live in shantytowns known as musseques, according to Development Workshop, an aid group in Luanda. The elite steer their Porsches and Range Rovers past slums like Sambizanga, where much of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, according to the United Nations. Downtown Luanda is another world, with a giant mall being constructed in the center, gleaming office towers, and residential buildings where two-bedroom apartments rent to expatriate oil workers for as much as $6,500 a month. Undeveloped land in central Luanda is selling at about $1,000 per square meter, and office space is going for between $7,500 and $10,000 per square meter, even after an eight-year construction boom, according to Daniel Esteves, a real estate agent at Luanda-based Empreendimentos e Mediavso Imobilisria.

The state has yet to fully meet President Dos Santos’s 2008 promise to build 1 million houses by 2012 because of the global economic downturn, says Allan Cain, executive director of Development Workshop. Despite government pressure, banks are reluctant to provide poor Angolans with mortgages, both because of their low income and their lack of land titles and collateral, he says.

Compensating slum dwellers is complicated. Only 7 percent of musseque residents have formal property deeds. Mara Baptista, Sambizanga district administrator, and Agostinho Silva, vice president of the Luanda administrative commission, were unavailable to comment after repeated visits to their offices and telephone calls over the past month.

Antonio is keen to move to a safer place with more space, plumbing, and better sanitation. He says he expects to receive two small houses in Zango, just like the pair of houses his nephew got. “The cleaning-up process is going smoothly,” he says. “I haven’t seen any discontent or demonstrations so far.”

For others, no matter how smoothly the transition goes, it still comes as a shock. “If I had a choice I would rather remain here than go somewhere else,” says João Carlos, 45, a taxi driver who’s lived in Sambizanga since birth. “Sambizanga is close to the city. It’s close to everything. I can’t believe I’m leaving.”