Tensions and urban conflicts in Luanda
The post-conflict economic boom in Angola has seen Luanda establish itself as one of the world’s most expensive cities for ‘expatriates’ – the result of a complex intersection of factors including a post-war oil-dependent economy reliant on imports. The subsequent inflation of real estate prices, in conjunction with a surge in migration to Angola, has pushed residents from the centre to the periphery where housing prices are cheaper.
New masterplans for central Luanda and the Ilha de Luanda promise to change the city irreversibly. To make room for the urban regeneration of the Ilha, like elsewhere in the city, authorities have employed forced evictions and relocations of local residents. In most cases, fishermen and their families have been resettled many kilometres inland, far away from the sea – thereby losing both their social networks and their income-generating activities, a vital ingredient for survival in Luanda’s informal economy. While the Angolan authorities continue to emphasise forced evictions and relocations as being part of the country’s reconstruction efforts after decades of war, human rights organisations have been documenting and reporting on the many violations involved in these processes.
These violations occur in the name of urban renewal, modernisation and development. Ironically, far from providing stability and wellbeing, the government’s post-conflict reconstruction strategy has instead caused disorder, heightened social inequality and increased legal insecurity for many people.
At the same time as people are being evicted from their homes on the Ilha, a steady stream of professional migrants receiving tremendously high salaries (especially in the Angolan socio-economic context) continues to arrive. ‘Expatriates’ describe living in a microcosm, often in luxurious condominiums with armed security guards, private drivers and services many of them would not be able to dream of accessing in their home countries. Their extravagant lifestyle further amplifies the already staggering inequalities between a poor majority and a much smaller economic and political elite, both Angolan and foreign. Despite their luxurious lifestyle, ‘expatriates’ experience a stressful daily existence, as Pedro, a Portuguese migrant, describes:
“The city of Luanda is very intense, there are many buildings, a lot of rubbish, millions of people. The Ilha really is the playground of the expatriates, as there you have the top restaurants, it’s where you go and eat the lobster, surf and turf and Argentinian filet mignon steaks with lobster on top... The clubs would have parties where the entrance fee woukd be minimum of 100 dollars... at the end of the night you had easily spent 300 dollars. We would be picked up by our driver and driven to a restaurant on the Ilha where we would eat for around 100- 120 dollars per person, then we would go to one of these parties... and we lived this life, where there were a lot of Portuguese expatriates, consultants, lawyers, and staff of
Portuguese companies, and a lot of upper class Angolans. Our lives revolved around these events at the weekends which mainly took place on the Ilha. (...) One of the things we really liked about the nightlife there was the music, the Angolan and South African Afro-house which you don’t find in Portugal... There were many nights where everyone danced... with a lot of interaction between us and the Angolan girls during the dance.”
The Luandan expatriate microcosm is still, to a large extent, male-dominated. This has been changing somewhat in the last few years, however, as more expatriate women arrive in Angola. Increased social divisions and inequalities inevitably provoke tensions and conflicts. Insecurity in Luanda has become a common theme in conversations with ‘expatriates’ in Luanda, and the Ilha is increasingly seen as a place where assaults and robberies are particularly visible, for example, on people returning to their cars after a night of extravagant partying at one of the exclusive nightclubs. These perceptions of insecurity fuel, in turn, the proliferation of security apparatus – fences and armed guards – that jeopardises the role of the Ilha as a place for all Luandans.
Geology: A constant battle between water, sand and human agency
The Ilha de Luanda is a 7 km long spit of sand closing off the Bay of Luanda from the waves and currents of the Atlantic Ocean. Also known as the Ilha do Cabo, and colloquially simply as the ‘Ilha’, it stretches from north to south, with its eastern coast facing the Bay of Luanda and the city’s monumental Marginal boulevard, and its west coast confronting the Atlantic Ocean.
Historical documents record the Ilha as being far longer and wider than it is today. Sixteenth century documents from European priests and explorers state that the Ilha was over 30 km long and ranged from 2-3 km wide at its widest point to as narrow “as a gunshot” at others. Through the ages, extreme changes have occurred in the Ilha’s shape and dimensions due to the currents and waves of the Atlantic, although history and human engineering have also played their part.
During the 20th century, various measures were put in place by the Portuguese colonial authorities to protect the Ilha from erosion - mostly unsuccessfully. The powerful Atlantic currents and notorious Kalembas (seasonal ocean storms) rendered them redundant; there was persistent erosion, and the Ilha’s famous beaches continued to gradually recede, leaving the sandy peninsula increasingly vulnerable to waves and floods.
From independence in 1975, the Angolan state - locked in a bloody internecine conflict - continued with projects to protect the Ilha de Luanda coastline. Landfills consisting of millions of cubic metres of sand and breakwaters were created, partitioning the western Atlantic shore into beaches of varying sizes, with the result that the peninsula might now be considered, to a large extent, to be man-made.
The existence and configuration of the Ilha have been profoundly affected by human engineering throughout history. For more than a century, human agency and various plans to protect the Ilha coast have attempted to reproduce its landscape and to halt the natural phenomena that lead to its erosion, whilst at the same time contributing to the creation of a destination for leisure and play. For decades now, the Ilha has been a place for residents of Luanda from all walks of life to escape the daily stresses of the city; a pleasure haven in the midst of a city which, today, is in the midst of a period of dramatic urban change.
Early colonial history
The capital city of Angola, Luanda, draws its name from the fishermen of the Ilha, known as the Axiluanda, a word in the Kimbundu language meaning “throwers of nets”. Throughout the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial periods, the Ilha has been affected by perpetual waves of migration and miscegenation, a trend that continues to this day with global international migration flows.
Precolonial records from the Ilha state that its inhabitants lived in small, scattered settlements and were a mix of Axiluanda, the local fishermen and initial settlers of the Ilha, and people originating from the northern Kingdom of Kongo. The first Portuguese to settle on the Ilha were a small group of merchants who arrived in the late 15th century with the Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão. They became known as the Ana Mualunga, the “sons of the sea”, and co-inhabited the sandy shores with the Axiluanda.
In 1575, a larger delegation led by Paulo Dias de Novais settled on the Ilha, which was already inhabited by some 3,000 Axiluandas, mostly fishermen. The Portuguese remained there for over a year, before moving to the continental side where they occupied a site they named São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda – which would later become the city known today as Luanda.
Following a brief period of Dutch occupation (1640-1648), Portugal regained control of Luanda and went on to establish the Ilha as one of the principal slave markets in southwestern Africa, with an abundant supply of slaves from the interior of modern-day Angola and beyond ready to be shipped across the Atlantic, mostly destined for the Portuguese plantations in Brazil. The slave trade remained the main economic activity of the Portuguese in Angola (and beyond) until the 19th century.
Despite being officially abolished in 1836, it wasn’t until the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910 that Portugal’s obligations to end slavery were finally fulfilled. Even then, the trade in slaves was replaced by a system of colonial forced labour contracts that only truly ended with Angolan independence from Portugal in 1975.
During most of the colonial period, the Ilha was underrepresented on maps of Luanda and it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that its inhabitants were included in colonial census statistics. For the Portuguese colonial settlers, the Ilha served as a leisure area for weekend breaks. Meanwhile, fishing remained the most important economic activity on the Ilha for the Axiluanda - but between the 1950s-1970s, a time of rampant economic growth in Angola due to the discovery and exploitation of its natural resources, Luanda’s construction boom eventually reached the shores of the Ilha de Luanda. The appearance of modern architectural structures (such as the modernist Hotel Panorama) which seemed to epitomise European civilisation on its sandy banks sparked fears among some residents of the extinction of the Ilha’s traditional way of life. These fears continue to be echoed by some Luandans decades later.
Nostalgia and colonial memory
The Ilha de Luanda has a symbolic significance for residents of Luanda, both temporary and permanent, past and present. From the as yet un-privatised beaches at its southern end to the old funfair at its tip, to the scattering of cheap fish restaurants between the eastern (bay-facing) side and the main road, the Ilha has hosted many a Luandan family weekend.
For former colonial settlers, the Ilha is memorialised in photo albums and oral histories as a peaceful haven of lazy beach days and sailing adventures, masking the segregation and everyday violence of colonial occupation. As a conversational topic, the Ilha triggers nostalgic reactions. Oscar, a Portuguese retornado (the term given to former colonial settlers ‘returning’ to Portugal following independence) in his late 60s who was born in colonial Angola and returned with his family to Portugal in 1975, recalls:
“The Portuguese didn’t want to leave [Angola]. Luanda was a better city than any other city in Africa. Our Ilha was beautiful, you could enjoy a cold beer and eat shrimps.”
Prior to independence, Luanda represented a place of freedom for many Portuguese settlers, who found Portugal (ruled by a fascist dictatorship until 1974) conservative and oppressive. Even today, a nostalgic colonial legacy of Luanda persists in many Portuguese minds; the Ilha embodies nostalgic imaginations that are in essence neo-colonial.
In contemporary Luanda, the Ilha de Luanda is still a playground for Portuguese and other migrants, as well as Angolans. In particular, it is a place of assumed belonging for the Portuguese migrant population in Luanda, especially for some of the older retornados who wish to return to the often imagined freedom and luxuries of growing up in colonial Luanda and who long for the sunny sands and easy-going beach culture of colonial Ilha de Luanda.
For foreign workers in the 1980s, the Ilha de Luanda was the most centrally located beach, and a place to spend the weekends with colleagues away from work and home. As Ingrid, a Scandinavian development worker working in the 1980s and early 1990s, explains:
“There was poverty and people lived in all kinds of shacks and poor housing but it was a place we could take our children and sunbathe, it was a place we could relax, be in peace and quiet, and have fun. In the mid 80s, there was a dilapidated hotel there and at the tip of the Ilha a restaurant opened that served good food that we would go to after sunbathing and swimming in the ocean. There were often a lot of white people there [at the restaurant] and of course well-off Angolans.”
For the local Luandan population, Angolans growing up in central Luanda in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Ilha also served as a playground for leisure and fun and an important place in the city’s beach culture. An account from Ricardo, an Angolan in his early 40s, describes:
“In our youth we would skip school and go to the Ilha, spend our time at the beach. When we grew older we would take our girlfriends to the Ilha. Back then the beaches were clean and the inhabitants of the city fewer. During the curfew years, after a night drinking with friends, you would end the festivities at the Ilha with a Caldo (fish soup). The Ilha is a ponto de alegria (place of joy).”
Inequality and urban segregation have been woven into Luanda’s urban fabric since it was established, planned and developed as a colonial city. By means of colonial laws and racial segregation policies, Luanda was divided almost from its inception into a central city and peri-urban musseques (or slums). The central city housed the white colonial population while the vast self-built informal settlements were where most of the Angolan population lived. In present day Luanda, more than two-thirds of the population live in the musseques, most of them without access to public water, sanitation and electricity infrastructure, relying on informal land tenure and housing, as well as a flourishing informal economy for employment.
The end of the 27-year long civil war in 2002 brought an unprecedented era of economic growth to Angola. The country’s vast resources, deriving almost entirely from oil revenues, were redirected from war apparatus towards a highly politicised programme of post-conflict reconstruction. This has provoked a real estate boom with skyrocketing prices for centrally located housing, and new and renovated buildings selling for higher prices per square metre than anywhere else in the world.
The aspirations of investors and of the Angolan authorities for a new, world-class city do not always coincide with the needs and aspirations of local residents. Recently, many fishermen and families who traditionally resided on the Ilha de Luanda have been evicted to make way for urban renewal and development projects. Such evictions have increasingly pushed the population towards the periphery of the city, further away from employment opportunities, schools and healthcare institutions and other basic services.
During the colonial period, certain spaces on the Ilha (such as the famous yacht club) already functioned as exclusive locations for the colonial and ‘assimilated’ Angolan elite. Over the last 10-15 years, however, private establishments with beach access have mushroomed along the Ilha shoreline. These bars and restaurants - where a dinner can cost over $100 per head - are frequented exclusively by the Angolan and ‘expatriate’ elites.
Despite the city’s traditional formal/informal divide, the Ilha de Luanda has always been a place which is culturally, geographically and economically accessible to people from all layers of society. Traditionally, the beaches of the Ilha have been shared public spaces open to all. Informal restaurants serving grilled meats and seafood out of makeshift shacks, offering modest prices and humble interior decoration have always operated in parallel to the exclusive private restaurants; ambulant street vendors selling cold drinks have catered to thirsty beachgoers; and informal fish markets selling fresh fish and seafood from the fishermen’s morning catch have been long term traditional establishments on the Ilha. But, with ongoing, large-scale reconstruction and urban regeneration, the Ilha risks becoming yet another ‘gilded cage’ for ‘expatriates’ and elites, excluding the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants from its beaches and facilities through walls, gates, armed security guards and inflated prices.
A playground for ‘expatriates’
Since the end of the war in 2002, international migrants have poured into Angola, mostly to work in the booming construction industry and the lucrative oil, banking and telecommunications sectors. The vast majority of these international migrants are Portuguese nationals whose arrival, to many Angolans, symbolises an exploitative relationship rooted in its colonial past. Around 150,000 Portuguese nationals have, according to the rhetoric oft-used in the Portuguese press, ‘returned’ to what was once a Portuguese colony, motivated by two concurrent factors:
Angola’s strong economic growth, and a deep recession and soaring unemployment in Portugal.
The benefits offered to professional, temporary migrants to Angola include high salaries, tax exemptions, generous travel allowances, transportation and, of course, accommodation. Many of these so-called ‘expatriates’ end up living in the exclusive condominiums that pepper the urban landscape of the capital city Luanda, where they enjoy swimming pools, tennis courts, maid-service and chauffeurs. These gated developments are often seemingly disconnected from the vibrant city that surrounds them - and yet they are very much part of the economic and social matrix in which the majority of Luanda’s inhabitants are entwined.
For many, however, the ‘expat’ lifestyle, although materially luxurious, lacks genuine freedom: commuting by car between gated compounds and offices, the migrants live a tightly controlled existence, whose logic is determined by fears around security and personal safety.
The gated beach bars of the Ilha de Luanda offer an escape from the isolation of expatriate life, where wealthy international migrants - and Angolans - can mix over cocktails, or between dips in the Atlantic Ocean, while their high fences and armed security guards pander to the illusion of security and exclusivity.
Overall, the Ilha continues to be a central feature of Luanda, and remains home to a mix of traditional fishermen, informal fish markets and modest Angolan dwellings, which exist alongside the exclusive beachfront restaurants, marinas and expensive hotels. Yet, the Ilha is increasingly becoming yet another emblem of the vivid petro-driven dream of a new Angola. In the coming years, the hybrid social and urban configuration of the Ilha risks experiencing dramatic change.
Isle of Pleasures is a project by Paulo Moreira and Pétur Waldorff for the exhibition On Residence: After Belonging, Oslo Architecture Triennale 2016 (8th September – 27th November), curated by After Belonging Agency.
Paulo Moreira is an architect based in Porto (Portugal) and a researcher at the CASS School of Architecture (London, UK). He is the co-coordinator of The Chicala Observatory, a research project based at Agostinho Neto University (Angola).
Pétur Waldorff is an academic based in Reykjavík (Iceland). He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from McGill University (2014) and is a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (Sweden) in the project Masters or Migrants? The New Portuguese Migration to Angola.