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An African City Tears Down Its History To Build A "New Dubai"

Luanda from above
Luanda from above
Christophe Châtelot

LUANDA - The curtain will soon be rung down for the last time at the Elinga Theater in Angola’s capital, Luanda.

The theater, where many rebellious artists got their start, holds an important place in Angolan culture. But it will soon be destroyed, its pink walls reduced to rubble by bulldozers. Like so many old buildings in the heart of the Angolan capital, it fell foul of real estate promoters attracted by the oil business. A former Portuguese colony, Angola is the second-biggest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa.

The theater had assets that might have allowed it to escape this sad fate. Besides the international reputation of its dance and theater creations, the building itself had been classified as a historical monument by the Ministry of Culture. But that was not enough to save it.

The theater, built as a school by the Portuguese in the 19th century, was simply removed from the historical monument list in April by the culture ministry. "Suddenly, there was no historical reason to protect it anymore. This is the only explanation I was given. If it didn’t mean the death of the theater, this might actually be laughable," laments its director, playwright José Mena Abrantes.

The real reason is financial. The entire district is being razed to build a parking garage and office buildings, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars, fronted by mysterious financiers close to the regime. They are hoping to receive a rapid return on their money by renting out the buildings to banks or to American, Brazilian or French oil multinationals.

They’ve done the math. According to the consulting company Mercer, Luanda is the second most expensive city in the world for expatriates, after Tokyo. The price of offices is hitting record highs in the city, where the average monthly rent for an expatriate's house is about $20,000.

Since the oil boom of the mid-1990s, when Angola's growth spurt started (reaching 15% a year during the 2000s), Luanda has been effervescent with new constructions. Building sites, where Chinese laborers work night and day, are gutting the city. The old buildings have not been able to withstand the pressure. "Angolans were proud of living in one of Africa’s oldest capitals, but they will soon have nothing to boast of. There will be nothing old left in the city," laments Abrantes.

Almost underneath his window passes a new, 200-million-dollar coastal road, inaugurated on August 28 by Angolan president José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been in power for 33 years and was just reelected. The coastal road, no longer lined with old houses, looks like it could be in California, with its joggers and body-builders. There are even roller-skaters, an incongruous sight in this city of caved-in sidewalks.

Slums to skyscrapers

Skyscrapers are sprouting up like mushrooms. Aided by illegal bulldozers and the billy clubs of the police, the skyscrapers are spreading toward the musseques: the Angolan favelas, slums without water or electricity, where most of Luanda's six to seven million inhabitants live. "The authorities plan to make Luanda the Dubai of Africa," says Claudia Gastrow, a Boston academic who is studying the city's development. "But there is no logic or coordination. The city center is just a façade."

The Dubai analogy includes the potential construction, as in the Gulf nation, of artificial islands off Luanda. This was the idea of José Recio, a tire-mechanic who became a real estate tycoon. His plan was blocked by the Angolan president and council of ministers, but it is too late for the Elinga theater.

Abrantes, who is also the president's communication advisor, did his best to use his position to avoid the disaster, but to no avail. Petitions did not work, nor did private initiatives. The Elinga will become a parking garage.

Abrantes, of Portuguese origin, was born in Angola in 1945. He studied in Portugal, which he left at the beginning of the 1970s to avoid the draft, which at the time was sending young Portuguese men to fight against independence movements in its colony. Abrantes joined the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA, the party which has ruled Angola since 1975) in Germany, without being able to fight in the independence war. "They told me, "We don't want whites!"" A silent struggle was going on at the time in the MPLA, where part of the movement wanted to "Africanize" the rebellion.

Civil war

He returned to Luanda when it became independent, in 1975. A civil war was tearing the country apart.

The deadly conflict between the MPLA, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) went on until 2002. During that time, half a million people died and four million became refugees.

"There was a war, but I just wanted to do theater," he remembers. He had to wait more than 10 years, during which he founded the official press agency Angop. He wound up being fired for "non-cooperation with the ideological sphere."

The Angolan government's allies at the time were Soviet and Cuban. "But starting in the mid-1980s, Dos Santos started working on reforming the system. It was before perestroika," says Abrantes.

He chose theater "so as to have nothing to do with politics," he says. Bit by bit, Marxism disappeared, in favor of a market economy, with money skimmed off by a clique of army officers, like General Helder Vieira Dias, called "Kopelina," director of the slightly shady National Office for Reconstruction. "A lot of people got rich back then," even before the oil boom, says Abrantes.

José Mena Abrantes is an idealist. Faithful to President Dos Santos, more so than to the MPLA, he says he is convinced that the president has been paying attention to the dissenting voices that have been sweeping the city for more than a year. "Before they could start work on social policy, they had to rebuild the infrastructure. But now it’s time to address the social problems." On the walls of the theater, you can read a small piece of graffiti: "This chaos is killing me." It has been the death of the theater.

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