Negotiating the Politics of Construction in Luanda, Angola

Claudia Gastrow

If the government would agree to move them to Kilamba (a new Chinese-built satellite city for the middle class), Miguel[1] explained that I would come back to the neighbourhood to find everyone had already voluntarily relocated. He and others were facing forced removal to a poorly built set of matchbox houses in Zango, a resettlement area on the edge of Luanda province. Having launched a protest against the removal, they were waiting for what the response to their demands would be. They were nervous that they were to be moved from a central urban area near services, to a peripheral one far from their work and everyday spaces of education, shopping, and sociality.

 Despite the end of Angola’s twenty-seven year civil war in 2002, Luanda’s residents have yet to experience a sense of safety and certainty. Even as peace arrived, a new struggle began, characterised by disturbances initiated by investments in urban construction and redevelopment that have steadily been displacing the city’s poor. Urban reconstruction has caused growing tensions as people have not only been forcibly removed, but socio-economic differences amongst the urban population are being concretised on the landscape, making visible the forms of exclusion that characterise contemporary Angola.

My dissertation investigated the politicisation of the built environment in Luanda as residents, both poor and wealthy, began to calibrate their relationship to the state and their sense of political belonging through the medium of architecture and urban materialities. During my time in Luanda, I found that new infrastructures and housing had become a site for the generation of disquiet about the current political order, rather than a means of satisfying the population as so much of the recent “Africa Rising” literature would like to imagine is the case.

My long term fieldwork had focused on the losers of national reconstruction –  demolition victims and residents of Luanda’s musseques (Angolan term for informal settlement) – but I wanted to get a better understanding of the historical underpinnings of reconstruction, and the urban population’s relationship to the built environment. I was hoping to steep my analysis in the general political environment of Luanda, where protests calling for better urban conditions and a more open political dispensation have been on the rise since 2011. Thanks to the Division of Social Sciences, I was able to return to this space of rebuilding, removal, and political transformation in order to conduct the final research for my dissertation. During summer 2013, I continued my work with housing activists, conducted considerable research into the urban changes of the 1990s, and managed to interview urban residents who had been involved in protests against forced removals.  I was also lucky enough to spend time with Angolan academics and researchers who, as always, pushed me to refine my work and analysis. The summer was absolutely invaluable to the completion of my dissertation, enabling me to revisit my ideas and improve my understanding of the political world of Luanda.

[1] Pseudonym