Forget statistics on literacy, child mortality and access to clean piped water: here in Angola, the shopping-mall is the key indicator of social and economic development.
A few feet from a luxury nail-bar for ladies who want their fingers pampered at the end of a morning's spending, Paolo Carimbia [not his real name] is slouched slightly uncomfortably on a large wooden bench. He and his friends look a little out of place sitting in the heart of Angola's shiny new $35 million consumers' complex, Belas Shopping. Wearing open-toed rubber sandals and dirty shorts, they have the overwhelming body odour of men who have been doing manual work and still haven't washed
"Now that we have Belas Shopping, we can prove that Angola is moving forward", says Paolo, waiving his hand at his friends to try and stop them giggling behind his back. "We are grateful to the government and those who organized this, because it's a creative place for young people like us."
Paolo's response is surprising. He admits he can't afford to buy anything at Belas other than a fizzy canned drink, which, at 250 kwanza (80 kwanzas/$1), costs over three times the standard price.
Lara Pawson is a journalist living between London and Luanda. Her blog is here:
Also by Lara Pawson on openDemocracy:
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He lives with his family in Rocha Pinto, a sprawling slum which you drive through to travel from Luanda city centre to Belas Shopping. From the main road, Rocha Pinto is a sea of corrugated iron roofs and breeze-blocks twisted through with sandy paths. Paolo does not have running water at home; he has to buy it from private businessmen who come at dawn in trucks with tanks. It costs fifty kwanza to fill a twenty-litre jerrycan and Paolo's family require about five of those a day. This is approximately twenty times more than the cost of water for middle-class families with pipes.
Paolo's home is a world away from the gated condominiums just a few minutes' drive from Belas Shopping. Some houses there are going for as much as $2 million, inhabited, inevitably, by the Angolan elite - including many politicians and army generals - as well as wealthy members of the expatriate community.
So isn't Paolo bitter that this new luxury neighbourhood in Luanda Sul, complete with Belas Shopping, has been built to such high standards, while he - and millions of other Angolans - continue to live in such testing circumstances?
"No", he says. "Rocha Pinto was built anarchically, (whereas) this area of Luanda Sul is being constructed now. It shows that Luanda is getting better."
But only getting better for the lucky few, say critics. Sift through the comments section of a popular Angolan news website, AngoNotícias and you get a fairly good idea of some of the resentment towards the shopping centre: it has preceded the establishment of uninterrupted electricity and water supplies; foreign investors always benefit before the Angolan people; health and education should be prioritized before shopping; Belas Shopping merely humiliates the poor majority who cannot afford to shop there.
The man in charge of coordinating Angola's macroeconomic policy, deputy prime minister Aguinaldo Jaime, disagrees. He distinguishes between private and public sector investment: "[Belas Shopping] is the private sector which does not have the conflicting priorities that we have. The private sector wants to invest in projects with a quick return. For the government it is very different."
Belas Shopping is a joint investment between Angolan investment management company, Hogi (70%), and Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht (30%). The state-owned Angolan press has reported that the creation of the mall has directly opened up 950 jobs and indirectly a further 2,500.
"It is a reflection of the new mood of optimism in Angola", says a British businessman, Thomas Gowans, who has lived in Angola for nearly two decades. "As the standard of living rises and disposable income increases, naturally people would like to have nice places in which to spend it."
He describes Belas Shopping as a "civilising influence" which can actually help deter Angolans from returning to anarchy and civil conflict. By raising the standard of living of the wealthier class, the rest of the population will feel the trickle-down benefits, and people will have less reason to give up this good life.
But if there is trickledown, it's a very slow trickle. Since 2002, the child mortality rate has remained at 260/1000, meaning that more than one out of every four children will never see their 5th birthday. In 2006-07, Angola has actually dropped a place on the United Nations human-development index, coming in at 161 out of 177. And beyond the data, you only need to drive around the capital to see the appalling conditions in which most Angolans in Luanda are living. Shacks made from pieces of wood, brick and corrugated iron cover huge swathes of the capital city. Slum areas are surrounded by hillsides of rubbish, with thousands and thousands of plastic bags moulded into the landscape.
In its bid to tidy up the city, the government has carried out forced removals of communities and has demolished thousands of homes. A national human-rights organisation, SOS Habitat, estimates that at least 6,000 families living in and around Luanda have lost their homes since 2000. In many cases, says SOS, people have been thrown out of their homes without prior notification and have been subject to excessive force by the national police and army. The organisation alleges that many people have not been compensated or, if they have, it has been a minimal sum of money.
"We are not against demolitions", says Rafael de Morais, of SOS Habitat. "We want Angola to develop. But for development to take place, you cannot deprive citizens of their rights."
The organisation says there were farmers living on land close to where Belas Shopping now stands, and throughout the Luanda Sul area. It is concerned that although some of the former residents were rehoused on cheaper land further away, many of these farmers have not been properly compensated. Today, a square metre at the new mall is worth $1,000, according to the manager of Gourmet de Belas, a fancy delicatessen there.
The badge of exclusion
Joaquina de Castro, aged 60, had a plot of land in another area of Luanda where she grew cassava and sweet potato, to eat and to sell. In 2003, some bulldozers turned up and destroyed her crops. Today a luxury condominium has been built on the same space. She says her community has written to the national assembly and even to the president, José Eduardo dos Santos, in a bid to raise their case.
"At the very least, we should be compensated, either given new land or given money", she says. "The government hasn't done that. I can't manage to buy a new plot because it costs two or three thousand dollars. I'm paralysed."
She says she has no interest in going to the shopping centre, which is too expensive in her opinion. What she would like is to demonstrate publicly with all the other people who have had their land taken from them in the name of development.
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"But we can't protest", she says. "Whenever we do, the government sends police and the army, with armed vehicles and dogs. If you say the truth here, you die or you disappear. This has been happening since 1977, when a group tried to protest against the late hero [Angola's first president, Agostinho Neto]. People remember this and they are scared."
Aguinaldo Jaime insists the government is doing its best to look after the poor, and has created a programme to house the lower economic groups. "These are houses that can be acquired at a very low price, not only for civil servants but also for those who don't have any revenue", he says.
The government is facing some major challenges when it comes to urban planning and housing the poor in Luanda. The city is said to have been designed for 600,000 people when originally built by the Portuguese; today estimates of the population of Luanda range from 4 million to 6 million (between a third to almost half the entire national population), the majority of whom are living in slum conditions.
An expert in urban planning, who asked not to be named, said that money the government could be investing in slum areas is being channelled into projects which would benefit the wealthy. For example, an $800 million project to reclaim land in the bay of Luanda, land which will be used to construct a luxury waterfront zone. He also criticises the private condominiums that are popping up around the city.
"What developers are trying to sell is exclusivity", says the expert. "It's extremely dangerous to society because it creates barriers so that [the elite] people don't have to even look at the poor."
Meanwhile, back in Belas Shopping, Paolo is trying to respond to a last question: how long does he think it will be before living conditions in his neighbourhood of Rocha Pinto are improved. After a long pause and considerable thought, he concludes:
"Everything has its time. Time is the master of everything. Only those who have power can do what they want. I can't say anything."
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