Middle class Angolans at Angola's very first KFC, where a family meal costs $40 USD
Angola’s second "election day" since the end of the civil war (1975-2002) has arrived, but the country's budding North Africa-inspired revolutionary movement has dwindled rather than become a threat to Jose Eduardo dos Santos’ 32-year MPLA regime. The fear of war [since memories of the last war are still fresh] and the fact that enough people see their vote as a way to channel their discontent explain why. But according to analysts there is a third factor: the lack of a true and independent middle class.
LUANDA, ANGOLA | A decade after the end of its civil war, Angola dominates the list of the world’s fastest growing economies and is Africa’s second-largest oil producer after Nigeria. Oil-backed Chinese credit lines have fuelled an impressive housing and infrastructure boom that has transformed the capital’s skyline and reconnected its provinces. Luanda Bay’s glamorous facelift was officially inaugurated by President Jose Eduardo dos Santos three days before the elections. In the capital’s stylish, expensive restaurants and clubs, Angolans party like there’s no tomorrow. This, though, is in the world of the haves.
There is also the adjacent world of the have-nots. More than a third of Angolans live below the poverty line. According to UNICEF around 87 per cent live in shantytowns, and more than half of those have no access to clean water. In 2011, Angola ranked 148 out of 187 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index and 168 out of 183 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. And in Luanda, the world’s second-most expensive city for expats, the minimum wage is around $100 USD per month.
Despite Angola's impressive economic performance, poverty is still fairly widespread
Since 2010, these statistics have been the catalyst for several small-scale but heated anti-government protests by Angola’s revolutionary youth movement, and they've all been successfully repressed by the regime.
Searching for the middle class, magnifier in hand
Between the haves and have nots, where is Mr Average? “The Angolan middle class is not very visible,” Brazilian researcher Juliana Moreira says. Her Angolan counterpart, economist and professor at Luanda’s Catholic University Manuel Rocha, is less diplomatic. “What we have is a very small group of very rich people who lack any entrepreneurial spirit. They spend their money on cars, houses and castles, and love showing it off. The source of this wealth is not work or investment, but the existing distribution model of national oil revenue through the national budget. An estimated 2 to 2.5 per cent of the population is rich to extremely rich. Due to the positive spillover effects of economic growth over the last five years, around 10 per cent of Angolans now have an average annual income of $7,500 USD. They could be considered middle class as a result of that spillover, and this group of people is in fact growing. The reach of this spillover could be much bigger, he says, “were it not for the high level of corruption and influence the ruling party.”
“We have people who have enriched themselves, and those who are impoverished," says Elias Isaac, the director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA). In one of the largest new-build projects on the continent, the 5,000-hectare new city of Kilamba (just outside the capital) that is meant to accommodate up to half a million people, apartments have a middle-class price tag of $120,000 to $200,000 USD. As of July 2012, only 220 apartments had been sold a year after the first batch of 2,800 went on sale. Isaac calls this ghost town a “giant with legs of sand.” According to him, the low sales figures point to the fact that Angola has no such thing as a middle class.
In all fairness it should be noted that the Angolan government is encouraging entrepreneurship, including among those with few financial means. Middle-class super- and hypermarkets such as Shopright and Kero mushroom all over the capital, and are bursting with eager customers. But only around 10 per cent of the population shop here (the 10 per cent that takes home 44.7 percent of the national income), and that includes the super affluent.
Whichever way you look at it, one thing is clear: Angola’s middle class is extremely hard to define and does not play a leading role in society. Markus Weimer from independent think tank Chatham house tells This is Africa that the lack of a middle class plays a role in the absence of North Africa-style large-scale anti-government protests. Referring to Africa’s Northern region he says, “In many instances, the people who went into the streets were the children of members of the middle class. The size of these protests is related to the size of the middle class.” However, the size of the middle class does not offer a ready-made formula in deciding whether or not a protest has mass potential. “For protests to become a mass movement, wider support is required.”
Enough people were (and are) too scared of war to allow the revolutionary youth protest movement to develop into a mass movement
Another reason for the absence of an "Angolan Spring", he says, are today’s elections. “In theory, change can be achieved at the ballot box, and a few activists have decided to lend their support to political parties.” Examples of this are anti-government rappers Luaty Beirão (aka Ikonoklasta) and Carbono Casimiro, who have publicly declared their support for UNITA (the second largest political party in Angola which, during the war, received military aid from America and South Africa while the MPLA received its support from the Soviet Union; Angola's civil war was one of the most prominent Cold War proxy wars). “There is no need to protest on the streets when you can vote, unless the elections process and result are called into question and seen as illegitimate,” Weimer says.
Angola’s Mr and Mrs Average
According to researcher Juliana Moreira, established middle class Angolans have at least a Bachelor degree. A considerable number have studied in South Africa, the UK, US, France, Portugal, Brazil or other African countries, and most spend their holidays in Brazil, Portugal, South Africa and Dubai. “We can’t identify the middle class by their income,” Moreira says. “One family may have a monthly income of $8,000 USD, while another receives $5,000 USD. But if you then divide the family income by the number of relatives, you see lots of disparity.”
Angolan engineer Guida (33; not her real name) studied in London. She moved back to Angola in 2004 to work for an international oil company. Guida’s English is flawless, and her accent is that of a middle class Brit. “This is where I live with my parents,” she says pointing at an inconspicuous, average-sized house in Angola’s expensive neighbourhood, Alvalade. "Alvalade used to be inhabited by hand-picked families. If you want a post-independence who’s who list, look at who lived here. Some of the best houses were kept for senior ranking officials, and to some extent that’s still true today.”
Guida’s mother concluded her PhD in Europe. Guida’s father served as a colonel in the ruling MPLA army during the war. She has pictures of him coming back coming back from the jungle, “with a beard till here, covered in dust” and remembers “vague images of truck loads of military men stopping in front our house, with my father jumping on, calling: ‘Hey, bye then!’ She was in her early teens when her father decided to defect from the army due to disillusion with the ruling MPLA. “The higher ranking you were, the more benefits you got, so our whole lives changed. I remember my family struggling financially. From the moment he left we were no longer a typical Alvalade family.”
Moreira distinguishes between a lower middle, middle middle and upper middle class. “Generally speaking, members of the middle middle class are from intellectual families,” researcher Moreira says. “Part of this intellectual elite belonged to the ‘Geração Utopia’ [the ‘Utopia Generation’ that fought for independence from Portugal]. They’re often either critical of political power or not susceptible to certain arrangements they’d have to make in order to move higher up the ladder to upper middle class [corruption].”
A night out in the capital, Luanda
Angola’s middle middle class most often has ties to the ruling party, both Moreira and Weimer say. Despite this group's criticism of the ruling party, clarifies Guida clarifies. She, for instance, is extremely critical of the Angolan government, but still votes MPLA. “Have you seen the alternatives? Every big contra-movement needs a figurehead, a poster child. We don’t have that voice that brings all the disaffected together.”
Lower middle class people generally come from a poor background, but managed to find a decent job. They often study in the evening hours to get a degree and increase their earning power. The upper middle class borders on a rich people’s lifestyle with a monthly income of around $20,000 USD per family.
Weimer emphasizes that Angola’s anti-government protests are linked more to generational issues than to Angola’s class system. “The older generations still have a memory and fear of war. The younger generations, increasingly connected through the internet, are growing impatient. They demand education, jobs, political freedom and greater fairness.” The literate members of the younger generation with internet access, that is, as only between 5 and 10 per cent of Angolans have internet access and more than 30 per cent are illiterate.
Perhaps Angola’s young middle class, despite the few exceptions, isn't the group to look to for vanguards of sweeping change. “The political ideals of the sixties and seventies have gone, Guida says. “We, the younger middle-class generation, are generally speaking spoilt brats who focus on our own lives.”