Luanda — “In Luanda there are no matches.” This was the first line of a report written by Nobel Literature laureate Gabriel García Márquez in the Angolan capital in 1977.
Soap, milk, salt and aspirin were other products that were hard to come by in a city that, he wrote, “surprised” visitors with “its modern, shining beauty,” although it was actually “a dazzling empty shell.”
The emphasis that the Colombian writer put on the shortages suffered by the war-torn country injured the pride of the Angolans who read his report. But he effectively described the chaos inherited from Portuguese colonialism and the war of independence, a year and a half after Angola became independent.
Today, 35 years later, it is the excesses and glaring contrasts that shock the visitor to this city in southwestern Africa. Shiny new cars on brand-new roads and highways lined by thousands of still-empty or half-built office buildings, apartment blocks and residential towers stand in sharp contrast to the sprawling slums around the city.
Signs on construction sites written in Chinese clearly reflect the Asian giant’s high level of participation in the construction of today’s new Angola.
The most ambitious project carried out by companies from China is the Nova Cidade de Kilamba (Kilamba New City), a huge development designed to house half a million people, 20 km south of downtown Luanda.
When it is completed, the new neighbourhood will have more than 80,000 apartments built for large families – the norm in Angola – in buildings five to 13 storeys high. The development is also to be fitted out with dozens of schools, child care centres, health clinics and shops.
Nearly one-quarter of the buildings have been completed. But almost all of them are empty, even though more than 3,000 apartments were already available when the development was inaugurated in July 2011.
Also involved in building the new city are Brazilian firms, especially construction giant Odebrecht, which is in charge of key projects like electricity and water grids and the construction of roads.
The foreign presence in the massive new developments “is not something to be admired, because it shows that there are no national companies with the capacity to build them,” said one of Angola’s most prominent writers, Artur Pestana, better known as Pepetela, who is also a professor of sociology.
“The Chinese build faster, they work round-the-clock shifts, and they offer almost interest-free long-term loans,” he said. But they employ few Angolan workers and “there are many complaints about the quality of their construction work,” he added.
Meanwhile, Brazilian companies “apparently learned their lesson from a few initial fiascos which made them the butt of national jokes, and they now stand out for the quality of their work,” which enables them to compete with the Chinese, said the author, who has published many historical novels that are critical of the government of José Eduardo dos Santos, president since 1979.
Odebrecht, a Brazilian consortium that operates in 35 countries, became a leader in infrastructure works in Angola after 1984, when it signed a contract for the construction of the Capanda hydroelectric dam on the Kwanza river, 360 km from the capital, built to supply Luanda.
The civil war, which broke out after independence, led to lengthy delays in construction of the dam, which did not begin to generate electricity until 2004.
The end of the armed conflict in 2002 unleashed a wave of investment in the reconstruction and modernisation of Angola, fuelled by the country’s oil revenue and Chinese credit.
Besides the construction of other large hydropower dams, Odebrecht is involved in the production of sugar, ethanol and electricity from sugarcane, and is expanding the waterworks and sanitation in Luanda, while building condominiums, roads and highways.
It is also dedicated to diamond mining, and controls the chain of 29 Nosso Super supermarkets.
It was the first non-oil company from Brazil to begin to operate in Angola with a “long-term outlook,” said Victor Fontes, director general of the Angolan company Elektra, which specialises in power and water grids. He said this had the positive effect of attracting other firms also interested in the long haul, instead of just short-term opportunities.
The director of institutional relations at Odebrecht Angola, Alexandre Assaf, told IPS that the consortium is committed to “continuity” in Angola, above and beyond the effects of wars or the global economic crisis.
Five years ago, only nine percent of the “strategic posts” in the company were held by Angolans – a proportion that has risen to 41 percent, he noted, to illustrate the company’s commitment to local development. Read more…