Portuguese escaping austerity are migrating to Angola, drawn by our booming economy. But we’re starting to wonder how fragile is the story of our development
The direction of migration between former colonies and their colonisers is usually overwhelmingly in one direction: Nigerians and Kenyans to London; Cameroonians and Senegalese to Paris; Congolese to Brussels and so on. The former colonies head to their former masters, seeking economic opportunities, or just as a show of wealth and status.
Angola, however, bucks this trend. In 2011 there were 21,563 Angolans in Portugal, compared to 100,000 Portuguese living in Angola. The attraction is clear, the same reason why people have always moved: to make a better life for themselves and the families they leave behind. In this case, Portuguese escaping austerity and high unemployment have been heading to Angola, currently enjoying a boom.
Angola’s economy, tethered tightly to the oil industry, may lack diversity. But oil (which accounts for more than 70% of government revenue and over 90% of exports) and diamonds helped give Angola 15% growth at its height between 2002 and 2008. Even when the rate dropped to 8-10% in 2012, it was doing much better than Portugal, whose economy shrank by 3% in the same period. The government’s decision to invest heavily in Angola’s banking sector saw its assets grow from $3bn in 2003 to $57bn by 2011, ranking it third after South Africa and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa.
With growing wealth has come a flurry of foreign investment and acquisitions of Portuguese banks and media outlets. Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the Angolan president José Edudardo dos Santos and Africa’s first female billionaire, has bought up shares in several Portuguese banks, such as Banco BIC and Banco BIP, Portugal’s fourth largest bank. The infiltration is so comprehensive that in June 2015 al-Jazeera called the media buyout “reverse colonialism”.
The change in fortunes has not only been visible on a balance sheet but in the attitudes of Angolans: proud of our presence in Portugal, proud of the fact we have the upper hand over our former coloniser. Angolans are visiting Portugal more often, and are even buying second homes. Away from home, the narrative about Angola is also changing, with Angolans enjoying the praise and admiration of strangers. Whenever people learn I am Angolan, the response is almost always: “You guys are really doing well, right?”
But is this progress credible? The petrodollars have started to trickle down; entirely new towns are being built; and plans are being developed for large shopping centres. But this is as much as most Angolans have seen of this new economic growth. Angola has the world’s highest death rate for children under five; in 2013 36% of the population lived below the poverty line, and unemployment was at 26%.
Like many Angolans, and indeed Africans, I welcome the recognition that we might be able to operate on the world stage. But every time family and friends return home we ask the same questions: why don’t we see this wealth and economic growth we keep reading about? It seems the Portuguese in Angola don’t reassure us of our might but remind us of the fragility of our development story.
We might be laughing now, but the Portuguese who arrive with capital to start a business find a ready place in our nation’s middle classes. Angola might be dominating its former coloniser, but is this the true face of our independence?