Shit, he tells us, literally floats down the streets of Luanda. And helicopters taking oilmen from platform to airport whir over Café del Mar at the tip of the ilha, a yellow spit jutting out in front of Luanda’s marginale. He writes that Belas shopping – a giant mall – is the only place where you can shop safely, the place “the wealthy worship”. This is John Kampfner, former editor of the once-left-now-centre weekly British magazine, New Statesman. Here, he writes about Angola for the British men’s magazine, GQ. It was brought to my attention by the pretty prolific Africa is a Country, who blogged it here. Mr Kampfner is a seriously experienced journalist, and someone I’ve tended to enjoy reading when he’s writing about the UK. And I’m inclined to conclude that he should stick to our small wet island up north, there. For his piece on Angola seems to fall into all the traps that so many journalists fail to see, hear or care about when they are writing about their trips to tropics. It may well not really be his fault: it may be the structure of ‘foreign journalism’, particularly the kind that only looks at certain countries once in a blue moon. How do you explain, in a few hundred words, perhaps a little over a thousand, the complexity of a place? How do you avoid falling into cliché? I haven’t found the answers, which is why I’ve stepped away from journalism for the last year or so: I’m trying to find an answer whilst writing a book. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to examine those who persist.
What irritates me about Kampfner’s piece is this:
I’ve never seen shit floating down the streets of Luanda and I’ve been going to that country on and off for a decade. I’ve certainly never seen floating shit in the ‘tarmac city’, the bit of Luanda where it seems from his description, Kampfner was standing at the time. Luanda’s drainage system is bad, and in many places non-existent. This is true. And there are powerful acidic and pungent smells that waft into the nostrils as you wander about. And I’ve wandered a lot there. I’ve wandered miles and miles in fact. I know there’s shit about – isn’t there always everywhere? – but I’ve never seen brown logs floating by in the tarmac city. I have only seen it decomposing in dark black puddles in slum areas. I’m reminded of an ageing Angolan journalist who congratulated me in 2000, “You came, you smelt the shit, you liked it, and stayed. We welcome you.” Yes, Mr Kampfner, there is shit but it’s a nuanced subtle kind of shit that is brutally simplified in your piece.
He tells us too of the wealthy in Luanda, and writes: “I have seen conspicuous consumption in London, Moscow, New York and Paris, but never a contrast such as this.” He then goes on to tell us about some of the people he meets, people who own floor-to-ceiling fridges, architect-designed sitting rooms with Italian furniture, each room with a plasma-home entertainment screen. He quotes one man saying, “Come see the marble. It’s from Brazil.” The implication in all of this is a kind of ooh, how disgusting, look at these super-rich Africans boasting their material wealth. Maybe my eyes are different and I’ve been hanging out with the wrong wealthy people in Angola, but my own impression is somewhat different. There are very very rich people in Angola – Kampfner is right – but in general, I’ve not seen anything in Angola that I haven’t seen here in Johannesburg, where almost the entire white middle class of the Northern suburbs live what I would describe as extremely privileged lifestyles. And I’ve seen plenty of floor-to-ceiling fridges in north London and south London, and homes with Agas and imported furnishings of all sorts, even in the homes of, erm, liberal journalists and academics who slam Labour and thump their fist at the declining state of the Guardian. I’m not sure the wealthy of Angola are any worse than the wealthy elsewhere: except they live near the, er, shit Mr Kampfner.
I’m entering slippery ground here… but the way I see it is this. We live in a globalised world with a globalised economy which, for many many years, people in the North (West, if you like) were able to kind of keep their eyes closed and pretend the rest of the world did not exist. Many of our wealthy middle and upper classes still do that – occasionally weeping a tear for the poor black baby on their equally flat plasma screens when they appear with Bono or Bob or mad Madge. The rich in the South can’t do that: they are in the thick of it. Not that I want you to sympathise with them – far from it – I just don’t want the rich and wealthy I know in London, being let off the hook.
I’m reminded of an argument I had with a BBC team back in 1999 when I was still the BBC correspondent in Angola. Working for BBC TV, they had come by to do the usual starving-millions-contrasts-with-revoltingly-rich Angola story. During their stay there was the Miss Angola contest. So we all piled down to the ilha to watch beautiful women whirling about an aisle showing their bikini bodies to the great and the corrupt of Luanda. Afterwards, the BBC TV crew were all in a huff and a puff that these revolting Angolans could possibly enjoy a beauty contest whilst just a few hundred kilometres away, other Angolans were being blown to bits. What struck me as stranger was this: that a TV crew, based in Johannesburg, with their Beemers and bulletproof vests, their nice cushy homes in the Northern suburbs, their pensions and extra safety cash salaries, could pop into Angola and see it as so distant from their own world, as something ‘other’ that had nothing to do with them. They could go out and get pissed and travel the world and have a laugh, but their Angolan equals could not. And they were quite wrong to assume that Miss Angola was simply about the super rich. I knew one of the girls: she came from an average middle class home in the centre of town. There was absolutely nothing super rich about her. Her father – a journalist – was definitely much worse off than any of those visiting journos. Should his daughter not have some fun, simply because her country was at war? Should foreign journalists ban their kids from ballet classes and pony-trekking and mountain-biking because there’s a war we created in Iraq?
To return to Kampfner’s work. It is also wrong that helicopters whir over Café del Mar. Perhaps he did see one or two, but I’ve never seen helicopters whirring there: they whir further north and further south, a long way from Luanda. Perhaps, during his drop-in tour, he didn’t have time to leave the capital – so he wrote what he heard, not what he knew. Or perhaps I’m going deaf. Not at all unlikely, believe me. But he does what so many forrie corries do: they point fingers at those who frequent the beachside restaurants of Café del Mar as no doubt uncaring wealthy businessmen, as if Kampfner’s colleagues in London never go eat in nice restaurants in Islington, or Shoreditch, the South Bank, or Chelsea. Take it from me: apart from the beach (perhaps a hint of the exotic for we Brits) there is no difference between Luanda’s restaurants and London’s. It’s just that in London you don’t need to drive home and see homeless people (oh, hang on… scrap that…)… It’s just that in London, you don’t need to look at the places that make up the imbalanced, corrupt, deeply unequal world in which we live. You don’t need to think about the globe as a globe: you can just sit pretty and plump and pretend it’s all over there somewhere.
Does it sound like I’m defending the Angolan elite? I’m not. Believe me, I see nothing nice about an elite that only wishes to hang on to power as long as it can and get as rich as it can. The poverty in Angola is appalling et cetera et cetera. All I am asking is for a little less self-righteousness from the visiting reporter. A little more self-reflection. A little more attention to detail (e.g. that Isabel’s husband is half-Danish, when the really interesting side of him is the Congolese bit, and that she is half-Russian, but never mind; e.g. that the tourism minister is something “new” because it’s not – I interviewed a tourism minister in Angola in 1999; e.g. that Belas shopping is the only place you can safely shop: it’s not, there are loads of shops in Luanda and loads of markets… I’ve never been attacked once) and a little less resorting to cliché. It’s really bad in Angola – you don’t need to exaggerate.
Oh, and a final word. Why is it that this GQ report devotes so much time to the rich and the wealthy, and merely sweeps away the poor miserable masses in a few sentences? Why didn’t Kampfner give any personality to these millions for whom he has so much sympathy? Why doesn’t he give them a voice? Make them real? Give them the agency they possess? Why are they portrayed as non-people, non-existents who have no voice and nothing to say? Could he find no translator? Could he not spare the time to leave Luanda? Do they have no face? No personality? Perhaps he recognises the rich and wealthy more easily because they are more like him, closer to his own self. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps… though I somehow doubt it.
I think it’s great that GQ tried to put Angola on the proverbial map, even if the country was probably sandwiched between the pages of semi-nude women who might be masturbated over by excessively rich British lawyers who work in The City of London and Oxbridge-educated accountants who help the great and the corrupt pay as little tax on their millions as possible. What, GQ? Surely not! For that we must thank you.
Oh, and one more thing, if any of you want to read the piece and judge for yourselves, let me know at email@example.com and I will email it.