Angola's capital is vibrant and enticing, but authorities have to
cope with the implications of serious overcrowding
Luanda is not only the capital of Angola, it is also the capital of carnival and the semba, a sensuous belly dance popular in the city. Possibly the most carefree and seductive city in Angola, Luanda used to be known as the "Paris of Africa" because of its sophisticated culture.
The city has an inconspicuous beauty that has more to do with its atmosphere than its appearance. Ramshackle and charmingly chaotic, Luanda is full of surprises, with its maze of roads that twist and turn unpredictably. Coconut palms line the seafront and mango trees adorn the city, contrasting beautifully with the rich terracotta earth.
However, Luanda is a city of contradictions, reflecting the huge gulf between the rich and poor. On first impression, it is a stunning city. Built around a bay, high rise buildings grace the skyline, but just behind them lie some of the poorest slums in Africa. Luanda is a paradox of squalor and style at once intimidating and welcoming.
Sprawling amongst the slums is the famous Roque Santeiro market, one of the biggest in Africa. A bewildering assortment of products are sold in the market. From bananas to spare parts for armored personnel carriers, from a withered cassava root to the latest high-tech television, Angolans say that if you look hard enough, you can find whatever you want in Roque Santeiro.
This is a reflection of the dramatic growth in the size of the city: the
population of the capital has exploded. In 1974, there were 400,000 inhabitants; today, there are four million. One third of Angola's population now lives in Luanda but the city's infrastructure has not caught up with the tenfold increase in population.
"Luanda was built for 400,000 people, and it cannot cope with its current population. We will have to make radical changes in urban policy because the situation has become untenable," says Anibal Rocha, the former Governor of Luanda.
The main reason why so many Angolans moved to Luanda was the civil war. Luanda is the safest place in the country, apart from the remote provinces of Kuando Kubango and Namibe, and people fled from all over the country to seek refuge in the capital. As Anibal Rocha says, "The government has managed to maintain a ring of security around the capital, allowing administrative and economic activities to continue in spite of the war."
Although Luanda is now considered relatively safe, it has faced two periods of great insecurity. After the formation of an independent government of national unity in 1975, fighting broke out in the capital between MPLA, UNITA and FNLA factions. Thousands of people were killed and parts of the city were destroyed. Fighting broke out again in 1992, this time between the MPLA government and UNITA rebels, after UNITA refused to accept the outcome of national elections. Many people died, and some buildings and other infrastructure were damaged.
These were exceptions to the rule, however, and Luanda remains the nerve center of Angola. The central government, foreign embassies, aid organizations, multinational oil companies and banks are all based in the capital. It also used to be the country's industrial hub, but this sector is only starting to pick up again after years of neglect.
Because it is the capital city and the seat of central government, the provincial authorities have been marginalized until quite recently. According to Anibal Rocha, "In 1999, Luanda's local government was recognized as a normal provincial government like all the others. Before this time, it did not have the same rank as the other provinces. The situation has improved significantly since 1999 because Luanda's local government now has the power to make executive decisions."
Before the Portuguese colonized Angola, the province of Luanda was part of the N'dongo kingdom. The peninsula that today forms part of the capital city was then known as Loanda, meaning "flat land".
The Portuguese were first attracted to the Luanda area for two main reasons. First, there were the legendary silver mines of Cambambe, which are situated about 125 kilometers from the capital. Secondly, there were the slaves. Luanda's natural harbor became the launch pad for the Kwata Kwata wars. Kwata means "to catch" in the local Kimbundo language and what were being caught in these particular wars were people.
The slave trade attracted many different European powers to the Luanda area, including the Dutch, who occupied the region from 1641 to 1648. One of the most famous Dutch settlers was called Van Dunem. Like many other European traders, he had children with local women, and to this day, the Van Dunems are the most influential family in Angola. Indeed, the population living in and around Luanda is now one of the most racially mixed in the whole of Africa. People of mixed race play a significant role in the country's political, economic and social life.
By the end of the 17th century, Luanda had become a thriving town, and it continued to grow in importance. As the bulk of the slave trade was conducted through Luanda, the Portuguese decided to establish it as their colonial capital. Although they later planned to move their capital to the central town of Huambo, which had a more attractive, temperate climate, they ended up staying in Luanda because of its dynamic economy and excellent harbor.
Although the deceased leader of UNITA Jonas Savimbi declared Angola's independence in Huambo, sparking a rival declaration from President Agostinho Neto in Luanda, there has been no serious challenge to Luanda's preeminence as the undisputed capital of Angola.