WISH Seminar – « The Roots of Reconstruction and the Urban Shadow State in Luanda, Angola » by C. Gastrow

Monday, 17 August, 2015 – 15:00

Venue: WISER

Abstract:  “Phoenix rising” read the title to the editorial of a 2008 publication of Universo, the Angolan state oil company, Sonangol’s magazine publication. The edition was dedicated to Luanda’s remaking in the wake of the country’s twenty-seven year civil war in 2002. Following this brutal war, Angola’s capital became the showpiece of the country’s rebirth. High rises fed by oil wealth climbed up the sky and state-sponsored infrastructural and housing projects provided a background hum to everyday life. The MPLA state has presented Luanda’s rebirth as the material embodiment of post-conflict prosperity. However, on the city’s streets, few are fooled by state rhetoric. Disillusioned hip-hop artists’ lyrics reflect popular sentiment, when they identify the national reconstruction programme as a real estate and land grab. Supermarkets, glass towers, stadiums, and freeways might now cross the city but haunting the spaces between them are the mangles of cement block and wire left in the wake of mass demolitions. The message which represents contemporary Luanda’s reconstruction to the majority of its inhabitants is not Sonangol’s glossy magazine cover, but signs that were erected in the middle of existing neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Luanda which declared them land reserves [reserva fundiária] and forbade their occupation, despite the fact that people were already living there. While these signs were often mocked, their existence spoke powerfully to what lies at the heart of urban reconstruction in Angola, namely the use of lawfare by the state to dispossess urban residents. Although international human rights groups have given significant attention to housing demolition in Angola, most scholarly accounts of reconstruction, while almost always mentioning demolition, have tended to focus on demolition as a side product of a larger aim. Studies of national reconstruction have therefore focused on two explanatory themes: Firstly, the use of construction as a means of constituting MPLA hegemony (Croese 2013, Soares de Oliveira 2015, Schubert 2015) and secondly, the questionable economic dealings underlying it that have enriched the elite at the expense of the rest of the population (Burgis 2014, Soares de Oliveira 2015). But the most striking material aspect of reconstruction has not been new buildings, but the destruction of old ones. Demolition, legislated into the enactment of national reconstruction projects, has been the mechanism through which the larger aims explored by other scholars, have been achieved. Thus, while this paper builds on the existing studies of national reconstruction, it focuses specifically on the question of housing demolition.