Ghosts evicted from empty city

On 11 July 2015, the Angolan city of Kilamba, built 30km outside capital Luanda, celebrated its fourth anniversary. Promoted at its inauguration in 2011 as the largest housing project in the country’s history, Kilamba comprised 710 four, eight and twelve-storey apartment buildings built by the Chinese state-owned CITIC Group Corporation. Kilamba was intended to provide Angolans with a new and decent way of living through a new model of urban management. Occupations were initially sluggish and for a period after its construction Kilamba was described as a “Chinese-built ghost town” by various news outlets. But over 70 000 people now inhabit Kilamba’s 20 000 apartments, which provide basic services such as water and electricity. Schools, shops and restaurants are up and running. A second phase is currently under construction.

Some observers have criticised Kilamba for its exclusive nature and the irregularities that have characterised the sale and distribution of houses. However, in March 2015 a special issue of African Business magazine on African cities hailed Kilamba as clean, modern and dream-like. The modernist imaginary evoked by this development remains undeniably attractive in Angola’s rapidly growing capital, which by the end of the 27-year civil war in 2002 had largely come to consist of a deteriorated, congested urban core surrounded by massive sprawling slums. Decent housing was unaffordable for an urban middle class that started emerging during the country’s oil-fuelled post-war economic boom. Kilamba aimed to fill this gap.

The stakes for this and other mass-scale satellite housing projects built in recent years have been high. As the flagship project of the government’s housing programme Kilamba could not fail. Virtually everything has been done to guarantee its success. Houses that were initially priced at market rates have almost literally been given way, either for free to the politically connected, or through subsidised rent-to-buy schemes aimed at the larger public. Large investments have been made to guarantee basic and affordable service provision. Yet, in the face of dwindling oil revenues this top-down, state-led and free-for-all approach to housing development is under significant strain.

Imogestin, the company that took over the commercialisation of apartments from the state oil company’s real estate arm Sonip in 2014, recently announced that from October onwards residents of Kilamba and other government-housing projects would have to start paying their monthly instalments. But apart from an initial down payment to gain access to a housing unit, few of Kilamba’s residents have incurred any other costs. In May, state-owned water utility EPAL told residents that their connections would be cut off if they did not pay their outstanding bills. Videos have emerged on Kilamba’s Facebook page calling for people to pay their water and electricity bills as well as their monthly maintenance fees.

Houses that were initially priced at market rates have almost literally been given way, either for free to the politically connected, or through subsidised rent-to-buy schemes aimed at the larger public

Meanwhile, residents have been complaining about problems related to the lack of waste collection, maintenance of green areas and growing crime rates in the city. There have been calls for the administrator of Kilamba, Joaquim Israel, to step down. At the time of the city’s inauguration in 2011 Kilamba was viewed as a pilot project for the gradual decentralisation of state administration; Israel is however an appointee of Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos.

The widespread attention given to Kilamba, both nationally and internationally, has made its administrator more outward looking than other Angolan local government officials, who in the absence of local elections view accountability as working upward. Kilamba’s administrator has been open to receiving visitors and discussing issues related to the management of the city. Nevertheless, the city’s administration has little effective power or autonomy. Its budget is allocated annually through the state budget and while it collects some revenues locally through the issuing of documents such as proofs of residence as well as through payments for the rental of spaces in the city for events and publicity, there are no mechanisms that allow for collective decision making or accountability on how these funds are spent. In spite of a desire to turn Kilamba into a something new, the city is effectively still part and parcel of Luanda. It has therefore not been isolated from the problems that affect the larger metropolis, which has a highly centralised governance system, the limits of which are now being revealed by the drop in oil prices.

A new statute adopted in August hoped to make local residents’ committees a part of the solution to problems of daily urban management, by making them responsible for the development of activities related to cleaning and maintenance, including the levying fees for these services. Many committees, which are organised at the level of buildings and blocks, have already been doing this on a volunteer basis in order to solve on-going problems of maintenance and security. Some services, like waste collection and public security, however fall beyond the committees’ capacity which has led to calls on the administration for support.

The main idea behind the construction of Kilamba was to provide the physical infrastructure needed to allow for a modern and new way of living. Kilamba was necessary proof of President Dos Santos’s 2008 pledgeto build one million affordable houses across the country. In this regard, the project has been relatively successful. However, the lack of structural change in the way Kilamba is managed has drained the state’s coffersand produced a toothless local administration.

Kilamba remains an opportunity to improve people’s living conditions, but ultimately its future will depend on the way in which the future of Luanda—and perhaps Angola as a whole—is managed. In the meantime, life in Kilamba will depend on those who inhabit, shape and change the city on an everyday basis

Sylvia Croese

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