Tupa was abducted in southern Angola just over the border with Namibia and the traditional territory of the Himba people. Over the years, Angola has become a hotspot for smuggling and trafficking of all kinds, threatening to resurrect a grim historical association with slavery. How has this come about?
On September 8, 2012, at around midnight, a young Angolan man literally fell from the sky over London, crashing to his death with a massive bang on the sidewalk of an otherwise quiet, working class neighborhood. The man had stowed away on a flight from Luanda to London, climbing into the passenger jet’s wheel housing wearing little beyond his normal street clothes. He still had tattered bits of white tissue paper in his ears, the remnants of whatever protective measures he took against the extreme cold and air pressure of an eight-hour flight at 30,000 feet. When the jet lowered its undercarriage over London, he plummeted to Earth through a clear, crisp autumn morning. Members of the Angolan community in London quickly rallied around the mystery man. To them, it was obvious why he had taken such desperate action – no explanation was required. As one Angolan asylum seeker told the BBC, “He probably had no job, was nothing in Angolan society. He had nothing to lose, like millions of ordinary Angolans. Our voice doesn’t count.”
It is practically a national pastime among Angolans to interpret everything from birth to death as a metaphor for the havoc and destruction that has come to define their history. It is easy to see why. For several hundred years, Portugal had a presence in Angola as part of its tenuous yet brutal hold on Africa, operating from coastal forts and trading outposts to satiate the world’s demand for slaves by turning the region’s tribes into either slaves or slave hunters. At the height of the Atlantic slave trade, the region was the main supplier of slaves for both North and South America. By the latter half of the 19thcentury, when Portugal demarcated Angola as a colony, the slave trade had given way to a massive forced labor system that, even by African colonial standards, was operated with particular brutality. In terms of day-to-day realities, the differences between the slave trade and the system of forced labor were a matter of small degree.
In 1974-75, the political situation in Portugal changed dramatically, and one result was the relatively sudden independence of its colonies. But with little to no transitional support whatsoever, the newly independent Angola plunged almost immediately into a bloody civil war. The large and highly skilled Portuguese workforce vanished, leaving the economy in a state of bankruptcy. Throughout the 1980’s, the fighting in Angola was a flashpoint for the Cold War as the United States and Soviet Union backed different factions with massive amounts of money and weaponry. Cuba and the Apartheid Government of South Africa became their military proxies – though each fought for their own reasons as well – and both governments committed tens of thousands of military forces to a combat zone that was as secretive as it was chaotic. The war lasted for three grueling decades, claimed millions of lives, and displaced over one-third of the total population. By the end, Angola faced serious problems: its infrastructure was almost completely obliterated, it had a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions on its hands, and its citizens included a generation of mutilados– “the mutilated ones” – or those who had lost limbs to one of the millions of unexploded land mines scattered across the country.
But since the end of the civil war in 2002, Angola has experienced skyrocketing growth due in large part to oil and diamonds, which when combined make up 60% of the country’s total economy. Between 2001 and 2010, Angola had the world’s highest annual average GDP growth rate at 11.1%. Between 2005 and 2007, this figure was an astounding 20%. China fuels most of Angola’s growth, it is the country’s biggest trade partner and consumer of oil, an enviable position and one the Chinese are keen to maintain by pouring in massive amounts of money and assistance. The extent of China’s involvement has been so great that until recently Angola has been able to thumb its nose at the very idea of accepting development loans and the subsequent structural reforms from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, opting out of a situation that has resulted in sub-par if not ruinous results for most African countries.
Yet like Namibia, GDP is a notoriously poor and misleading indicator of how well Angola’s population as a whole is actually doing. The government plunders the country’s rich natural resource base for the benefit of the futungos, a network of well-connected friends, family and colleagues based in Luanda who dominate the Angolan political and business world. The economic disparities between the political elite and the rest of the country are enormous; the wealthiest man in Angola is the president himself while the next 7 wealthiest are all high-ranking government officials. They send most of their money to overseas bank accounts, thus ensuring that absolutely nothing trickles down to the people, so many of whom are facing starvation and malnutrition that Angola ranks in the top ten lowest calorie consuming countries in the world (just ahead of Haiti). Waves of desperate people have fled the countryside for the cities and Luanda in particular, where over three-quarters of the capital city’s residents live in slum conditions and half lack access to clean drinking water. Meanwhile, Angola retains its position as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, easily ranking among the bottom 20 on the world’s corruption index. It also scores badly in terms of a host of other governance measures, ranging from participation and human rights to sustainable economic opportunity and human development. For the majority of people in Angola, overt forms of violence experienced during the civil war years have given way to an indirect yet equally devastating form of social suffering rooted in a crushing cycle of poverty, hunger, and marginalization.
The southern border areas with Namibia are Angola’s economic apogee, the most distant point from any manifestation of the country’s post-war growth, unless one is looking for signs of how unequal that growth actually is. It is a rural hinterland, far from the hustle and bustle of Luanda and the oil and diamond fields in the north, encompassing a landscape that seems unable to escape the war years that defined it for much of the twentieth century. The roads are so broken down and pitted out that they are mere suggestions that point you in the general direction of your destination. For much of the year, they are impassible, muddy bogs that skirt around burnt out Russian tanks and overgrown minefields. It is not wise to stray too far from your vehicle. There are few towns and no cities of any consequence in southern Angola, just villages where rural poverty, hunger, and neglect are part of the daily fare.
Yet as a border region in a country fueled by equal parts corruption and growth, southern Angola is also a frontier land of immense opportunity. It attracts smugglers, con-men, and opportunists of all kinds, and there is a healthy flow of mostly illegal and/or stolen goods pouring into the country from Namibia every day, including alcohol, electronics, clothing, vehicles, animals (both wild and domesticated), and everything else from children’s toys and plastic buckets to kitchen sinks (in 2009, a truck driver was arrested for attempting to smuggle in 102 kitchen sinks). Diamonds are among the few items that seem to move in the opposite direction – but diamond smuggling can be a very dangerous business. Luanda’s appetite for material consumption is difficult to satisfy, it is a giant black hole literally fueled by oil that sucks up anything of substance in the region. And Namibia, a stable country with strong ties to South Africa and historically porous borders, is in a perfect position to feed it. Over the past decade, the border regions between Angola and Namibia have become a critical link in a vast underground network of trafficked goods.
As for the average Namibian, it is impossible to ignore the opportunity to make a lot of money in a very short time by trying one’s hand in the cross-border trafficking of goods to Angola. But doing so is inherently dangerous; it requires the right contacts, a great deal of shrewdness, and considerable insight into the highly fluid and hidden world of smuggling. Most who take part end up losing.