Politics: War and Peace
The first and foremost reason for the wave of optimism surrounding the country is peace. War started before many of us diasporians were born and continued on and off until very recently. Whilst the last five years have been very positive, one cannot help but remember that Angola has been the graveyard of many believers who misread their cards. So the million dollar question is "how do we know if peace is here to stay this time?". Its a tough one.
I'm going to try to steer clear from too many political judgements and discussions here, as we all know how important politics are for all Angolans and how attached people are to their parties. However, I think there is a broad consensus with regards to how peace was obtained: the deciding factor was the death of Jonas Savimbi. The die was cast then. Savimbi represented the aspirations of a large segment of the Angolan population, but he was also the iconic image of the Freedom Fighter of old, the bush fighter, the personification of a Guevarian "Liberdad o Muerte". Like many of his ilk, he would never compromise. Truth is, while MPLA deserves a lot of credit for the peace, its tally is probably less than what is claimed. UNITA's military undoing was in the making for a while now, starved as it was of support from its key allies and sources of revenue. The world around us changed dramatically, but UNITA failed to change with it. We are now living in a brave new world, a place were the rivalries are fought in the commercial arena rather than by guerrilla war, and where nations are a lot less inclined to support rebels on the grounds of their political inclinations. (In turn we now have religion to worry about, but that's another story).
For good or bad, UNITA is now a shadow of itself since the demise of its leader; whilst extremely competent, the remaining members of the party are not of the same mold as Savimbi. These people are much more inclined to try to win via the ballot box rather than going back to the bush. In other words, war as we knew it is very unlikely to return.
For pretty much the same reasons, FNLA or any other Cabindan independence parties are not likely to cause problems. Small skirmishes in territory are bound to continue for a while, but its clear that Cabinda will not obtain its independence, not while the oil revenues are so significant for the development of the country as a whole. The new statutes of autonomy will probably be enough to please the Cabindan people, if not their leaders - but the reality is they will never develop any significant military power capable of destabilising the country. So much for parties other than MPLA.
The key factor in determining Angola's political stability is MPLA itself. The party has been headed by Jose Eduardo dos Santos since Agostinho Neto's untimely death, several decades ago. Many things can be said about dos Santos years in power, but very few can fault his executive for their macro-economic performance over the last four or five years. Inflation has been finally tamed and successive challenging targets have been met; the Kwanza has been stable; some progress has been made with regards to transparency and management of the oil revenues. Don't take me wrong: huge, massive amounts still remain to be done at the macro-economic level and in terms of economic reform - and these are the areas the government has focused on, so you can imagine every other level. But the general direction taken is extremely encouraging. This is not an opinion, its a fact validated by the huge influx of FDI. The fundamentals are more or less in place.
But, like everything else in life, there's always a snag. Elections are coming soon to Angola. There is very little doubt MPLA will win, the opposition being in total disarray; and there is little doubt MPLA will ensure the elections are free and fair, so confident they are of winning and so much importance they place in being accepted by the political world at large. The question is, who will be at the helm of the party? And even if it is Zedu, as Dos Santos is affectionately known by all Angolans, how long can he stay in power? After all, he is getting old. Who will succeed him? Will he or she be able to hold the party - and thus the nation - together? Those are fundamental questions. Many say the M (MPLA) is a very strong institution, one capable of raising above internal disputes. After all, this was how Zedu was found that many years ago, a virtually unknown character in the party taking over at a crucial juncture. Yet others point to the ANC post Mbeki and to the instability the succession is creating. This is by far the most important political challenge the country is going to face over the next few years.
I'm inclined to believe the party will provide a suitable candidate post Zedu, but that's the optimist in me.
The Economy: Realistic Expectations
As I mentioned earlier, the economy - or should I say the macro-economy - is doing fairly well. FDI is booming, one of the largest in the world. Inflation and currency are under control. The biggest problem is the excessive dependency on oil, but unlike the IMF I think its probably best to ignore this caveat. Lets face the facts: there is no Angola without oil. It is and has been by far the largest source of revenue in the country, something like 90% of GDP. And the second largest source of revenue is probably equally bad, the dreaded diamonds. Even a mildly competent economist can tell you that depending on commodities is a recipe for disaster, this being more common sense than anything else - basket and eggs come to mind. Schoolbooks tell us that diversification is the key. However, one has to face reality. The way I see it, if your country has one really strong competitive advantage, might as well make use of it. Depending on oil is a given. It will take decades to loosen up this dependency, and there's very little one can do in the short term. More importantly, one has to focus on how the oil money is being used.
In this regard, whilst there is the usual large amount of wastage, what surprised me the most is how much is actually being done. The government's program of reconstruction is very large and it encompasses almost every area of the country. The plan seems to focus first on infrastructure. These are areas such as roads linking the provinces, dams to produce electricity and water and key industries. There is also a very large focus on education, with many schools being built over the last few years.
Look, don't take me wrong: Angola could be miles ahead if every cent of the oil money was used properly. We would be South Korea in ten years. This is not the way to look at reality. One has to benchmark oneself by looking at one's peers, and Angola's peers are Nigeria, Liberia, Namibia, Equatorial Guinea and other such commodity dependent developing countries. In that regard, I think we have to judge Angola's performance as above the average. The crux is not that every single cent of oil money has been used properly; it is that some of this money actually found its way to the people, and this amount is increasing with every budget.
Another criticism that is being made is that Angola is focusing too much on large public works such as the Kapanda dam and forgetting about the little things that can improve the people's lives. This is, again, a text book criticism clearly inspired by an utopian view of the world. In theory, theory is always right, in practise it seldom is. Show me a single country that was made competitive by ignoring large public infrastructure works and focusing exclusively on the people. Was this what the Marshall plan favoured when Europe was in total chaos? Lets be honest, this just cannot be done. For starters, its much easier to ensure these large works are completed successfully than it is to measure the success of social targets. Misquoting Sitglitz, its all about sequencing and pacing and you can't run before you've learned how to crawl. If you haven't got a competent workforce to deliver public services, what's the point of putting them in your budget? As an example, the government itself admitted in the very state controlled public television TPA that one of the problems they found with education was they were building schools too fast to staff them, so they had to resort to less qualified teachers to fill in the gap. They are now focusing on teacher training to help alleviate this problem.
Enough ranting. Angola is currently focusing almost all of its capital on developing infrastructure, very much along the lines of the Shanghaise school of thought. There are large amounts of waste due to corruption and mismanagement, but this is to be expected, and is in line with its peers. Some of these public works have been completed successfully, many are still on the pipeline.
The job market has to be broken into two segments: qualified personnel and non-qualified personnel. On the qualified personnel front, the booming economy is creating a very large number of positions, many of which cannot be filled. One of the reasons is the Angolanisation process. Similar to BEE in South Africa, Angolanisation is a form of positive discrimination that gives priority to Angolan citizens in job applications. Multinational companies working on Angolan soil have to fill in a minimum quota of Angolan personnel. There is also a second incentive for hiring Angolans: they are much cheaper than expats. Angola was already lacking qualified people before the economic boom, but now the situation is dramatic. If you search the web you'll quickly notice that many companies are now bringing job fairs to Europe, trying desperately to entice the diaspora to come back. The main reasons is that most diasporians have university degrees and these are in great demand. Any degree will open doors, really, but I noticed a particularly large demand for Engineering, Information Technology, Accounting and Business Administration. The Angolan universities are churning out large amounts of law graduates, so I suspect these are in less demand. However, if you have good working experience in any field, my guess is you wouldn't struggle to find a job. For instance, there is huge demand for tradesman like plumbers and air conditioning technicians. Many of these people are getting in with high-school or 9th grade. One thing that employers particularly like from the diasporians is the work ethic: most people tend to turn up on time and leave late everyday, take few breaks during the day and rarely miss days due to sickness or otherwise. This is highly valued in Angola because the work culture there is much more relaxed. Work absenteeism is a big problem.
But before you jump on the next plane, bear the following in mind:
- Do not come to Angola without a job lined up, from a reputable company. You can easily change jobs when you come here, but the first one will be the hardest.
- Make sure you get a good wage (1500 USD month is the absolute bare minimum). Life is very expensive. When discussing your package, make sure you cover: health insurance, car, housing (probably not going to get it, but should always try), holidays. Renting and cost of living in Luanda are very high so make sure your wage covers it. Its sensible to budget around 1000 USD month for accommodation.
- Make sure your company will help you out with accommodation. If they are not willing to pay for it, ask them to at least find it for you. Ensure they will provide some kind of temporary accommodation until you manage to move out, since it will take you a long time to find a place to live.
- For the diaspora, make sure you have your papers in order. If you haven't got Angolan papers anymore, try finding out if your birth certificate is still there. Most companies will only hire you if you have a valid Angolan ID card and passport, so you'll probably have to get these before you start applying for jobs.
- Make all possible efforts to find a job in the provinces. Its extremely unlikely you'll find one, but if you do you're sorted. However, the reality is you will most likely have to work in Luanda. Its probably a good idea to go there for a week or so on holidays to get a feel for the place. This will be an expensive exercise.
- If you are not Angolan, don't despair. There are plenty of job opportunities for foreigners too, in particular if you are a fluent Portuguese speaker. There are many Brazilians and Portuguese working in Luanda, as well as foreigners from other countries such as USA, England, South-Africa, France and many other countries. You may even be able to find a job without speaking Portuguese, but I guess there are not that many of these. As a foreigner you must make sure you have all of your papers in order at all times, including visa and work permits. The government is very strict, and you may be asked for papers at any time. Also, when discussing the job package make sure the cost of the work permit is fully covered by the company employing you.
- If you have any friends or family in the country contact them. You will need a lot of help.
- Be prepared to wait. Things will take a very long time to happen, both at the corporate level and especially at the government level.
- Don't expect a relaxed life at work. You will have to do the same hours as you would in Europe or USA, and working late is pretty common. Pressure will be perhaps a bit less intense, but this will vary a lot from company to company.
There are also positive aspects to take into account:
- The wages are higher than what many diasporians can aspire to in Europe and USA, particularly if you just graduated from university.
- Most companies will throw you in at the deep end. Managerial positions that would take you years to obtain in Europe or America are routinely given to very young people.
- Most people I have met truly believe that they are helping their country by creating economic growth. This feeling of achievement is hard to come by in developed countries, where one tends to feel just like another cog in a big machine. In Angola you truly feel like you are making a difference. Of course, it still remains to be seen whether this growth is really going to create the development the country needs, but for the moment most people are optimistic.
With regards to the non-qualified personnel, the situation is very different. Like very much all of southern Africa, Angola is struggling to provide employment for most of its citizens. Numbers are hard to come by, and they cannot be fully trusted since there has not been any proper data collection for a while, but many sources believe unemployment is higher than 50%. Now, the thing is, 50% is not just a number - not just ten times more than a normal western country; at this sorts of thresholds, the average western country would be facing social and economic meltdown. Of course, this being Africa, there is a kind of normality in these abnormal conditions. The war created a very large exodus from the country side to the capital. In the past, Huambo was the most densely populated province; this role was taken over by Luanda, on a grand scale. Again, figures are sketchy - we won't know for sure until the electoral registration process is completed - but some sources believe that there are more than 8 million people living in Luanda. Most of these live in shanty towns (mussueques) and do not have official jobs. Instead, they make a living in the parallel economy, most likely in commerce.
Its very difficult to find official non-qualified work, and when you do its probably not going to be paid that well. A security guard makes around 100 to 150 USD a month, a sum that seems handsome for any third world country but in Luanda is next to nothing. Just getting to work will cost you 2 USD a day or more, and you'll be stuck in traffic for hours on end. With the economic boom, there has been significant job creation at the lower ends of the market - construction in particular. However, this has only made a small dent on the overall employment because Luanda is so overpopulated. The government is keen on creating incentives for people to move out of the capital, and indeed the quality of living outside Luanda is much better for the poorer people. The problem is, many of the mussueque inhabitants have been in Luanda for ten or twenty years, and are not very easily persuaded to go elsewhere. Some - the young crowd in particular - are urbanites and will not be able to adapt to rural life. For these people, finding a job is very hard. Many people work as taxi drivers, cleaning ladies, security guards or salesman of one sort or other. Many are just bayaye, people that find one job today, none tomorrow.
Like every other third world country, Angola suffers from corruption at all levels. The root cause for corruption in the civil service are the low wages. In general, things will work much slower unless you provide some additional stimulus, the gasosa. The government is trying to address this issue by trimming down the public sector and increasing wages, but this is a very hard thing to achieve and should be seen as a long term objective. After all, corruption is rife in countries like China and India and they are still able to grow at a very fast pace.
Overall, one has to say that health in Angola is pretty good. The biggest downside is its cost, which makes it unavailable to a large percentage of the population. However, the "middle-class" can choose between a large number of private clinics. These are rather expensive in Luanda, and one outing to the doctor can cost you as much as 200 USD if you're not careful. Outside of Luanda, in the provinces, the costs are much lower and in general the service seems to be much better too. The good thing about these private clinics is that they will see you almost instantly.
With regards to medicine, chemists seem to have all the drugs one can find in Europe, many of which at the same prices or slightly lower. In general though, these are expensive.
With regards to the public health service, this is in its infancy but the government has spent quite a lot of money in creating new hospitals and clinics and in refurbishing the existing ones. We went past quite a few in Luanda (such as Josina Marchel) but we didn't actually go inside so we cannot comment on the quality of service. Be prepared to wait for a while to be seen though.
This is one of the most surprising things about Angola: in general, its actually a pretty quiet sort of country. Luanda is definitely the epicentre of all crime and violence in Angola, but unlike other big African cities - Jo'burg comes to mind - it doesn't make you feel like you're about to be mugged every time you leave the house. Don't take me wrong, Luanda is, by European standards, a very dangerous place. But if you are not carrying any valuables or wearing nice clothes, and if you are walking in the parts of town which are known to be safe its unlikely you'll get mugged. Night time is obviously more dangerous than daytime.
You should avoid going on Candongueiros (combi taxis), in particular the ones that go across town, although we personally made extensive use of them and had no problems at all. Also, while Angola is a pretty integrated country its important to remember that colour is an obvious tag; non-black people stand out a lot more in poorer places (mulattoes included), so make sure you know the area and the locals well. For instance, very few non-blacks use candongueiros so you will be an obvious target.
On the negative side, you will need to be careful when driving a car, particularly nice looking ones, and when going to or leaving your flat and job. You will probably want to have a security guard in your house, or one for the building if you live in a flat. We've heard quite a few stories of people getting mugged inside their own buildings. Its also a good idea to go out in large groups at night.
But overall, I must say though that Luanda is not in the same league as South Africa when it comes to crime. The main difference seems to be that most crime is not violent; that is, people are happy to mug you and run - or beat you up if your mobile phone is not one of the latest generation - but they are unlikely to shoot you or stab you. It happens occasionally, of course, but not frequently. In South Africa, the situation is very different. A lot of robbers kill and rape, its seen as part of the course. I think the main reason for it is the heavy presence of police in Angola. We saw policemen in every town we went to, many of them on the beat. In South Africa you seldom see a police officer.
Outside of Luanda its a different matter altogether. If one excludes problematic areas such as Cabinda and parts of the Lundas, all provinces are extremely safe. In Namibe and Benguela, for example, you can actually walk round with your valuables, day or night. Be sure to ask the locals, of course.
As we said previously, housing is a big problem in Angola, especially in Luanda. There just aren't enough houses available to go round so the house prices are, if you'll pardon the pun, up the roof. The private sector was quick to detect the opportunity, and Luanda is now one big building site. Unfortunately, most of these new constructions are expensive buildings and private condominiums, completely secluded from the rest of the city. These normally sell out well before completion and are horrendously expensive. For instance, we heard that a new set of flats going up near the Marginal has units at over 1M USD and is completely sold out. We also saw a nice new condominium being built by Soares da Costa where some houses cost over 500K USD. You can find some houses for 200K but you'll have to look really hard.
The other problem is that many of the existing houses and flats are actually not that nice, although they are really expensive. Some old houses are being sold for an absolute fortune. If you decide to rent, the situation is also difficult. For instance, its common for landlords to make "agreements" with tenants which are not particularly beneficial for the tenants. For instance, many landlords require you to renovate the house. In return they will give you a slightly lower rent (not that low, really) for a specified period of time (say one or two years). After that period elapses, the rent goes up. If you can't afford it, you'll have to move out and renovate somewhere else. Some of the renovation work is pretty extensive, including painting the whole flat, putting new flooring or new plumbing, buying furniture, etc. Because the shortage of houses is so severe, tenants have no option but to put up with these requirements.
Thing is, if there is one thing Angola has lots of, it is space. Luanda is surrounded by huge expanses of empty land. The government noticed this too and decided to create a whole brand new Luanda in Luanda Sul. Many of these projects are private, such as Belas Shopping. Some are government led and focus on affordability, such as Lar do Patriota. These are normally housing cooperatives, and work as follows: you join the cooperative by paying a fee and a monthly instalment (normally a small amount); the cooperative starts building houses, and handing them out on a first-come first-served basis. The money you have payed till then is taken out of the overall cost of the house, and you then start paying a regular mortgage. These projects started off at very reasonable prices such as 60K USD but have since gone up quite significantly - although still much less than the private condominiums. Some people complained of corruption and inferior quality materials in these projects, but the houses we saw looked rather nice, if somewhat small. The only problem is that the infrastructure surrounding these projects is not moving as fast as the building so in some cases people have moved in before the tarmac has reached their neighbourhood. In addition, Luanda Sul is mainly a residential area at the moment, so you have to commute to central Luanda for work. This is easier said than done, with the massive traffic jams Luanda experiences every day. And when the rains begin, its even worse.
Another peculiarity about housing in Luanda is electricity and water - or lack of, should I say. This problem is a lot less prevailing in Luanda Sul, but quite common everywhere else. Basically, you never know when electricity and water are going to be available. Sometimes it can be up to a week or more without it. Well-off people have generators for the electricity and tanks for the water, but the diaspora moving in has no access to these facilities.
Finally, one last note about construction. It is cheap enough to buy land and build a house (well, cheap in Luandan terms). A plot of land in Luanda Sul can cost you as little as 10K-20K USD. However, building a house in Angola is not for the faint of heart. Everyone I spoke to said its an incredibly difficult undertaking, costing large sums of money - nothing goes according to plan - and huge amounts of time - the paperwork is difficult and managing staff is impossible.
At this point in time, you cannot use VISA cards in Angola to access your international accounts. The Multicaixa network (the network of ATMs) is looking into it and expects to solve this major problem in the first or second quarter of 2007. This is a major bummer and means you won't be able to get any money out, so you'll have to have lots of hard cash on you. Some places (very few) accept credit cards, but there aren't that many, really. Whilst we all wait for Multicaixa, there are two alternatives to get money out: a) you can either transfer your money to a person you trust with a bank account in Angola, which will cost you less than 5% in charges; or b) use Western Union. This is slightly more expensive, but its very efficient; money is made available within the hour. The only downside is queueing. The only offices available in Luanda appear to be in Mutamba (Millennium Bank), and they are always very crowded.
In terms of opening a bank account, the banks in Angola seem pretty efficient. You'll find quite a few Portuguese banks there (BESA, Totta, Millennium, etc.). Unfortunately, you cannot access Portuguese accounts from the Angolan counterparts, you need to actually open up a new account on Angolan soil. As far as I could ascertain, you need an Angolan passport or a valid work visa to open an account, and the process seems very easy and quick. With the account, you'll most likely get a Multicaixa card and there are plenty of ATMs around to withdraw money from. Most of them have security guards, but one should always be careful when getting money out. Note that you cannot use your Multicaixa card outside of Angola.
Cost of Living
The cost of living in Angola is pretty high, and in Luanda is extremely high. We've already seen how housing is expensive. Groceries and other household goods are also very expensive; in many cases, are as expensive as they would be in Europe, in countries where wages are much higher. Some goods are actually more expensive in Angola than elsewhere. For instance a carton of juice costs around 3 USD. Bread is quite good and cheap, but cheese, ham and other items are very expensive.
Eating out is extremely expensive. A meal out in an average restaurant will cost you no less than 15 USD. Some more upmarket places charge as much as 40 USD for some dishes. Two people would normally spend between 50 to 100 USD when going to a restaurant.
Clubs and bars are also expensive. For instance, we were charged 20 USD to get in to Bar In in Ilha. This includes drinks (around 8 whiskies worth). You can haggle in some of these places and get the doorman to reduce the bill.
Owning a car in Angola is a must. This should preferably be a 4x4, as there are many roads you can't actually negotiate without one. This is particularly important if you intend to drive to the provinces. Although there is a network of public transport, it doesn't cover a significant area and the service it provides is rather haphazard. This is changing somewhat with recent investments, but it will take a while. Most locals use candongueiros (Toyota Hiaces) or taxis to get everywhere, and in the provinces kupapatas (motorbike taxis).
If you do own a car and live in Luanda, you are bound to spend the vast majority of your driving time stuck in a traffic jam. This is partially due to the inadequate state of the roads but also to do with the sheer number of cars on the roads. Driving in the capital is not for the faint of heart.
In terms of travelling to the provinces, the best method is by plane. There are several companies that fly to the provinces, and prices normally start around 100 USD for a single. If you go with one of the more reputable companies such as SonAir and Air Gemini you shouldn't have many problems with cancellations and other mishaps. TAAG is not recommended for internal flights (but its fine for international flights). If you are more adventurous you can try going by bus using SGO Interprovincial. This is not advisable, in particular from Luanda. Most roads in Angola are in pretty bad condition. One trip that is very safe to do by bus is from Lubango to Namibe though, where the roads are absolutely excellent. Lastly, you can also travel by candongueiro or other informal drivers to the different provinces. This is not at all recommended.
Access to the web is fairly common, and there are several cyber cafe's available, in particular in Luanda. However, the quality of the links these cafes use is very low. As a result, access is slow and haphazard, with frequent downtimes. It can stop functioning for 10 minutes or so during the hour you've paid for, and the cyber will not take any responsibility for it. In addition, web access is not cheap. An hour costs 250 Kwanzas (a bit less than 3 USD).
Internet to the house is not very common, but it does exist. It can be as expensive as 70 USD a month, and its not particularly fast. However, cable is now becoming available, and with it the promise of broadband. In addition, the government intends to link all provinces via fibre optic by 2009 and some of this work has already started.
In terms of TV, the most common provider is DSTV, a South African satellite company. This gives you access to a lot of Portuguese speaking channels such as Brazilian and Portuguese TV, as well as the usual international channels. There is also state TV but most people (including the poorest) have satellite TV.
Other than being expensive, night-life in Luanda is actually pretty good. There are many bars to choose from, and the crowds in those bars are pretty posh. Many of these bars look rather impressive, and have really good music. Electronic music is now the most common, and whilst there is some cheesy dance music there is also a lot of good House and Techno. Its harder to find bars with African music (Kizomba in particular) but they do exist. There are still quite a few clubs with Kizomba though, plenty to choose from.
There is a large choice of restaurants in Luanda, all expensive. Whilst the food is not bad, the service normally is. Perhaps its because Angolan waiters don't get paid on tips, but whatever the reason is, most waiters are rather rude. Even the most expensive places seem to have problems with their staff, including Hotel Tropico and Cais De Quatro. You just get this feeling people don't want to be there.
In terms of the provinces, there are less places to choose from, and the staff normally is slightly less rude.
Quality of Living
In general, and even taking into account problems such as no electricity or water for extended periods of time, it has to be said that most of the young qualified people have a good standard of living. In fact, this is one of the biggest pluses of living in Angola, and stems from the fact that wages for qualified staff are high, allowing people to enjoy themselves on their time off. Provinces such as Benguela and Namibe are particularly remarkable in this regard, but Luanda has a lot to offer too.
Other than tropical rain, weather is pretty good almost all year round in most provinces. For Luandans, weekends are normally spent at the beach, either the closer ones such as Ilha or Mussulo or slightly further out (Cabo Ledo, Porto Amboim). A lot of the well-off people have beach houses, boats and jet-ski's and use them on weekends. Those who haven't got these items normally know someone who knows someone who has them.
Many people are now travelling to the provinces and exploring the countryside. There are many extremely beautiful places, and people are now making the effort to see them. The tourism industry is still in its infancy, but the well-off segment of the population is pushing it up.
This, of course, has to be contrasted with the vast majority of Angolans, who enjoy a very low standard of living. The contrast is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the whole experience, and it will probably take quite a while to adapt to living in a place with such huge disparities between rich and poor.