PUBLISHED: 16:23 EST, 4 August 2012 | UPDATED: 08:26 EST, 5 August 2012
At this time of year, sea fog from the relentless Benguela Current threads itself grimly each morning between half-built tower blocks dominating the building site that is Luanda, the dusty capital of Angola.
Perched on a curve on the coastline of obscure south-west Africa, the city’s main claim on our attention has long been the bloody civil war that racked the country since its independence in 1975 until 2002.
Now, with the fighting over, the scramble for construction has begun, and from any given point you will see up to 50 cranes working on tower blocks.
Wrong side of town: A child stands in front of shanty housing built in a slum on a hill above Luanda – now the most expensive city in the world
St Tropez it is not. Newly purchased yachts moored in Luanda’s harbour must navigate rubbish and rusting car parts as they head into the bay.
Yet Angola boasts a fabulous £15.3 billion worth of international oil reserves – its ‘Ouro Negro’ or black gold. Oil exports from here make it Africa’s second-largest after Nigeria and foreigners are flocking here to work.
Offices and accommodation are in short supply and the expats are overloading the city with their demands. What they find when they get here is a city officially recognised as the most mind- bogglingly expensive in the world.
British music producer Mark Voysey, paying £290 a night for a room at the Epic Sana hotel last week, knew Luanda wasn’t cheap. ‘But I didn’t expect to pay £32 for a room-service hamburger,’ he splutters. ‘Down in the street market where we were filming a dance sequence I came across fake Vans sneakers for £58, on a stall next to a woman killing chickens with her bare hands.’
The dark and dingy Casa Frescos mini-supermarket in Luanda’s Maianga shopping district is selling sad little packs of 15 black cherries costing £6 – and people are buying them.
A one-bedroom apartment in the city centre costs £7,500 a month to rent. A pizza is £16, tomatoes sell for £7.33 per pound and gym membership will set them back a staggering £5,000 a year. Only the guns are cheap. An AK-47 costs just £19.
High life: Barbara Jones on one of the luxury hotel terraces that overlook Luanda¿s shanty towns
Ana Cristiana Pinto, an attractive 23-year-old who was sent out of the country for her education, as were many Angolans during the long and bloody civil war, explains: ‘For many years we had nothing here. No supermarkets, no shopping mall, no cinema.
‘Suddenly, since the war ended and the oil began to flow, we are seeing things we have only read about or seen in foreign shops.
‘People earn good money and they want these things. Often they don’t look at the price.’
This helps explain how a pair of Puma trainers can cost £185 and why the room-service spaghetti bolognese in our hotel restaurant is £32. Around the corner, lies a tiny boutique with a new consignment of Pepe jeans. An IT executive from BP is buying a pair for £192, twice the price in London.
‘It’s a fashion choice, and besides it gets very dusty in this city,’ he tells me. ‘We’ve had our long war, we still have many people who are hungry and poor, we have suffered. Now people like me with good jobs feel it’s time to treat ourselves.’
He is one of Angola’s educated elite, the top tier of professionals who make up one third of the 18 million population.
An IT boss pays £192 for a pair of jeans – twice the price in London
Typically, these lucky ones studied for their degrees in Lisbon, London or Cape Town and have returned to take advantage of the new career opportunities.
Venues such as the Tamariz Beach Club on the coast sell champagne for a minimum of £225 a bottle, while a Martini will cost £20, yet they are anything but glamorous – with their clientele of oil-engineer lounge lizards leering at the African girls and their Formica-topped tables serving overpriced pizzas to Chinese construction workers.
But this is an oil-rich country that looks forward to a predicted 12 per cent growth in its economy this year. While major powers lick their wounds over collapsing markets, Angola strides forward at breakneck speed, confident of double-digit growth for years to come.
Shiny new shopping malls and satellite cities of condominiums and bungalows are springing up to hasten Luanda into the 21st Century.
Expats are attracted by generous salary packages, free private education for their children, a driver and 4×4 and two business-class trips home each year. No wonder Mercer, a leading firm of financial analysts, has put Luanda at the top of its annual expat cost-of-living survey more than once, as has the respected ECA International ranking system.
Politicians hanging on to power, super-rich businessmen with government connections, Chinese construction companies and expat oil executives – everyone wants a piece of the opulence that is today’s Luanda.
Two weeks ago, Portugal’s Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho came with his begging bowl. Formerly the colonial master of Angola, Portugal is now broke and in debt, its economy shrinking by almost three per cent this year.
Cash rich: Expats at the Tamariz Beach Club. Offices and accommodation are in short supply and the expats are overloading the city with their demands
Passos Coelho manfully announced that ‘this is a good time to strengthen our bilateral relations’ and Angola’s President Jose Eduardo dos Santos somehow managed to keep a straight face. ‘We are aware of Portugal’s difficulties and we are open and available to help,’ was his careful reply.
There won’t be bailouts from Angola, but massive and canny investment. Angola is effectively buying Portugal, a supreme irony.
The country that plundered the African state for more than 300 years for its slaves and its natural resources now watches helplessly as Angolans buy up prime real estate in Lisbon and develop luxury housing where its politicians, its army generals and its businessmen smugly install themselves for long holidays.
Angola goes to the polls at the end of the month and campaigning started last week. Already public protests against poor services, inflation of 13.5 per cent and unemployment of the masses, have been suppressed with tear gas and water cannon.
Few dare speak out in this police-dominated, corrupt state, with its hobbled press and its brutal crackdowns on public protests. Rafael Marques de Morais, an Oxford graduate who has, over the years, been imprisoned and beaten for his anti-corruption campaign, is braver than most.
He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The elections are the time for Angola’s rulers to gloss over the artificial economy, to try to persuade us that it is sustainable. The top layer of people here are living high, earning well and paying huge prices for their homes and their lifestyle.
‘But two-thirds of Angolans live in slums and poverty. The minibus taxis taking people to work are owned in their hundreds by top politicians.
‘A man working as a poorly paid security guard will have to spend $12 [£8] a day to get to his job, but he will only earn $200 to $300 [£127 to £191] a month. He is paying to go to work.’
Just beneath the conspicuous consumption on view in the expensive hotels and newly built housing suburbs there is a level of poverty hard to stomach.
Two-thirds of Luanda’s five million residents live in shanty-town squalor. Sheltering beneath little more than cardboard and planks of wood, families cook over open fires, scavenging through rubbish on the street.
Billions would need to be spent to make Luanda an attractive destination. Venturing up to the eighth-floor cocktail bar of the Hotel Baia overlooking the South Atlantic, it is disturbing to look out of a picture window and into the pitiful lives of shack-dwellers who have set up home on a dirty mudbank.
Small children and mongrel dogs play with plastic rubbish in the filth, wading into a putrid-smelling lagoon that serves as their lavatory. There is no electricity, no running water. Along with two-thirds of the country’s population, these people live on less than £1.28 a day.
During Angola’s civil war between the Russian and Cuban-supported People’s Movement For The Liberation Of Angola (MPLA) and the American and South African-supported National Union For The Total Independence Of Angola (UNITA) guerrilla forces – the last knockings of the Cold War – millions of families fled the countryside for the comparative safety of Luanda city.
Here they have lived the life of refugees ever since. Their rural areas are strewn with land mines, agriculture and industry was destroyed. There is nothing to return to.
On the Ilha, a natural sandbank washed by the South Atlantic, the potential is there to see. It could be Copacabana with its surfing possibilities and its vista across the bay to the city lights in the distance.
Instead it is plagued by shack-like cafes with broken awnings, litter-strewn stretches of beach where gangs roam and an extraordinary public park surrounded by stone walls and wrought-iron railings.
Disposable income: Two young Angolan men in a car dealership selling Range Rovers. Despite the flush of wealth, two thirds of the country’s citizens live in slums ad poverty
‘Never go in there,’ warns our driver. ‘Street kids live there and it’s dangerous.’ Through the trees, 100 shacks were visible, ragged washing on the lines, unwashed children plotting their pickpocket raids around a dismal fire of twigs.
Karen Neal, head of the commercial team at the British Embassy in Luanda, blames the extraordinary cost of living on two factors. ‘Absolutely everything has to be imported and that means using an import agent licensed by the Ministry of Commerce.
‘These agents have a monopoly and it is a closed shop. The cost of deposits, fees and tariffs are non-negotiable because there is no competition,’ she says.
‘The second factor is the oil market’s domination. Oil companies have deep pockets – you will also find it in Houston or Aberdeen – and it’s a matter of supply and demand.’
The Embassy in Luanda is small. It deals with expat Britons from the oil and gas sectors, many of whom are rotated on a five-week basis.
‘It is difficult to entice expats over here,’ said Mrs Neal. ‘There is the language problem and, of course, the phenomenal cost. It costs $1 million [£640,000] a year to settle an expat here, including accommodation and security.’
Packing as she leaves at the end of her tour of duty, she commented dryly on the living conditions: ‘I’ve just been picking live bugs out of some risotto rice. It can be quite irritating.’
The traffic jam of ships in the port illustrates the sheer volume of imports. There is also limitless bureaucracy to hold things up. For bureaucracy read corruption, African-style.
Expensive boats fill Luanda’s harbour. Since the end of the civil war, the scramble for construction has begun, and from any given point you will see up to 50 cranes working on tower blocks
Transparency International, the respected NGO that investigates government fraud, ranks Angola 168th out of 178 countries in its corruption perception index.
At the head of all criticism is the President. Already in power for 37 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos recently changed the constitution to give himself a further ten years in power if the MPLA is successful in the forthcoming elections.
Dos Santos’s daughter Isabel is the country’s leading businesswoman, said to be worth £109 million, having made her money from investments in oil and diamonds.
She is owner of the giant Escom building, which at 25 storeys is the highest in Angola.
Inside there is space and light, smart offices and boutique spaces ready to let. On the top floor is the Doo Bar, a nightclub so exclusive that even an expat’s overstuffed wallet won’t buy his way in. Handguns are taken at the door for safe-keeping. Luanda, at its craziest, can be deadly at night.
At the first-floor Oon Dah restaurant, the fanciest in town, beautifully dressed Angolan greeters will guide you under soft lights across a parquet floor, past an illuminated bar decorated with fresh flowers, to your immaculately laid table for an overpriced supper.
A bottle of rioja, an ungenerous nouvelle cuisine helping of duck confit and a modest steak will set you back more than £120.
But in the absence of any taxi service in Luanda at the weekend, the head waiter – complete with dark suit and bow tie – will drive you home free of charge.
However, the journey will be painful. There are bumps and potholes and heart-stopping traffic speed. There are also rows of people sleeping on pavements outside the general hospital – the relatives of patients, given minimal care that does not include food or water. Without their relatives in attendance they will starve, and the hospital provides no accommodation for families.
Across the city skyline one building dominates: the Torre Ambiente, a high-rise block of luxury apartments topped by Africa’s most expensive penthouse, reputed to have recently changed hands for £13 million.
An eerie silver light spreads into the sky above it, beamed up from the helipad installed there for wealthy apartment-dwellers. Angola, with the world’s lowest social development indicators, is a mass of contradictions that insult the poor in their slums while coddling the rich in their condominiums.
None of this, of course, is conducive to tourism. Before a visitor even encounters the high prices he must navigate the demands for bribes from immigration and customs officials at the airport, and take in the view of the slums from the runway.
Perhaps it is no great loss. As one British travel agent put it: ‘Who wants to visit a country that has a machete on its flag?’