'Ghost town' still haunting government

The size of the Nova Cidade de Kilamba, the Chinese built housing development outside Angola’s capital Luanda, was as important as the construction itself. The US$3.5billion estate – made up of over 700 buildings over 54sq kilometres - was supposed to be a flagship symbol of Angola’s post-war economic might and it led many to dare to dream of having their own home.

June 6th, 2013

The size of the Nova Cidade de Kilamba, the Chinese built housing development outside Angola’s capital Luanda, was as important as the construction itself. The US$3.5billion estate – made up of over 700 buildings over 54sq kilometres - was supposed to be a flagship symbol of Angola’s post-war economic might and it led many to dare to dream of having their own home.

Indeed for a while Kilamba was the shining jewel in Angola’s post-war reconstruction crown. Its vast rows of pastel-painted towers were shown off to every visiting dignitary who came to the country, including UN Secretary General, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But, as they say, all that shines is not gold, and in Kilamba’s case, the gloss has faded to the extent that the project has become not just a for Angola’s government, but also a source of frustration and anger for its people who have waited so patiently for their share in the country’s peace dividend.

Kilamba, and the various other housing projects in and around Luanda, such as Zango, Capiri and Km 44, are far from the symbols of progress they were supposed to be, but increasingly rather ugly concrete reminders of the country’s deep-rooted problems. If this column were a twitter post, I’d be using the hashtags , , and possibly .

The latest is that after thousands queued through the night back in February to register – a number were paid to queue – in order to make deposits for apartments, many remain without news on when they will get them. Others have moved in to find there is no water or electricity, for which no-one – not the developer, the seller nor the utility companies - wants to take responsibility. At one development, that soldiers were called in to guard properties from an angry crowd demanding access to their properties, and other reports say admin mix-ups have led to some plots being sold twice over.

, phones gone unanswered, queues of people left waiting to see if their life savings have secured them a home, or if they must return to their to tell their family to forget that dream.

Indeed, when President Jose Eduardo dos Santos announced that he would build one million homes within four years Angola’s housing policy has been a sad and embarrassing saga. The president, , claimed US$50billion would be spent on the project, though no budgets or costings were presented, and it later emerged that in fact over two thirds of that million would be “self-constructed” i.e. not built by the government at all.

Dos Santos talked big about providing “homes with dignity” for Angolans but at the same time each month thousands of families are from their homes across the country. While some of those moved were occupying land illegally and had been warned, others had been there for decades, even giving (to corrupt local officials) their life savings to secure a plot, only to watch it be razed to the ground in a .

As for the new developments where some of these evicted people were taken, if they were offered shelter at all, there appears to have been total lack of community engagement in their planning. The estates are generally plonked on the remote outskirts of the capital, far from jobs, and existing communities. Families who for generations have been fishermen in Chicala for instance, are now stuck idle in the dusty wastelands of Zango with no income. I can’t help but think there an underlying plan to stick the general masses out of sight into distant suburbs, while the prime real estate they used to live on is transformed into a playground for the politically-connected elite.

The case of Africa’s largest open air market, is a case in point.  That this market was the heartbeat of Angola’s informal economy appeared to be of little interest to the developers who have bigger plans for the seafront spot according to architects’ videos I have seen.

But for all the big plans, the maths hasn’t quite worked out. In Kilamba’s case, no-one could afford the properties, which despite initially being billed as social housing, had gone on sale for between US$120,000 and $200,000. In July 2012 that Kilamba was standing nearly empty and I described it as a “Ghost Town”. A shaky video I shot with a handheld camera during a visit to the nearly-deserted estate spread rapidly via social media, and the story was picked up by news organisations around the world.

Foreign media focused on the fact the project was Chinese-built – and the UK ripped off my piece to create a cheap and hateful anti-Chinese rant that may have made even its most loyal readers feel uncomfortable. I am not blaming the Chinese. I think the responsibility lies with the Angolan government, not just to ensure value for money, but also to challenge the practice of importing labour that does nothing for Angola’s economy or its people. I do have concerns about the lack of clarity over what role was played by the shady Sino-Angolan Hong Kong-based investment group or their relationship with the state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC).

Also opaque was transfer of the properties from CITIC to state oil company Sonangol’s newly-created real estate subsidiary, Sonangol Imobiliária e Propriedades (SONIP), via the opaque Gabinete de Reconstrução Nacional (GRN) run from the Presidency.

Highly-respected Angolan anti-corruption campaign has asked further questions about the management of Kilamba and the private real estate firm, Delta Imobiliária, which was set up to handle the property sales for SONIP.  that Manuel Vicente, Sonangol’s then CEO and now Angola’s Vice President, has shares in Delta and has taken a personal commission from the sale of each property. Other high-ranking officials, including the former head of the GRN, are also linked to the deal.

​After my BBC article, Jose Ribeiro, the notoriously truculent editor of the country’s state-owned (and government endorsing) daily paper, the Jornal de Angola, took exception to my observations about Kilamba. Under a headline “” he suggested that I had mistaken all the people who were happily living there for ghosts and that my journalism was “shameful” and “not based in truth”.

I was vindicated, I believe, however when Dos Santos, Angola’s president of nearly 34 years, visited Kilamba in the November and asked where the residents were. State media reported that , though the next day, there was a by the Minister for Urbanism and Housing, José da Silva, who said the president had actually asked for more efficiency in the process.

Something needed to be done. As of November 2013, of the 20,000 apartments that had gone on the market over 12 months earlier, barely more than 4,000 had been sold, of which fewer than 600 had actually been paid for, 465 outright and 96 with a mortgage. In October SONIP published a list in the newspaper of 500 people who were to be given a property, among them civil servants, journalists and “Musicians who participated in the electoral campaign”. When people turned up to claim their houses, staff at Delta said they knew nothing about it. People joked on social media that they couldn’t even give the properties away.

Under siege from long queues at all their offices, Delta staff blamed the banks saying no-one could get bank credit, while the banks blamed the government for being slow with the land title deeds. For those who couldn’t afford to buy outright or access a mortgage (between half and two thirds of Angola’s population live in poverty depending whose numbers you believe) a scheme called “Renda Resolúvel” was launched, allowing people to pay an initial deposit and then rent over 20 years to guarantee ownership. But the schemes and pledges and headlines are sadly rather like the projects themselves, they sound great but fall short on delivery.

The word Kilamba is the Kimbundu name of the country’s much-feted first president, Antonio Agostinho Neto who died in 1979. I suspect even the 500metre monument erected above the late leader’s mausoleum will be unable to shield him from the embarrassment of this association.

In Portuguese there is a saying “para inglês ver”.  It literally means “For the English to see” – but figuratively it means what governments want you to see, things they do for show to get external recognition. How ironic that in the case of Kilamba the Government of Angola, which seems to base all its policies on what it wants “Os inglês ver”, has created such an eyesore that will forever be a symbol of its folly.

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