Not many expatriates can claim to have lived in the same shanty-towns that the impoverished endure. I did, occasionally enjoying town water and electricity, but never at the same time. I had the misfortune to go bust in Angola and faced with a dole queue in UK, decided I would rather tough it out here. I lived in what Angolans refer to as a ‘Cubico’, the colloquial name for the breeze block, wriggly tin covered cubicles that one can rent cheaply in the less trendy and invariably muddier parts of town.
Angola has its problems. Anyone who visits the place will immediately be struck by evidence of squalor and hardship. Go to any African country and more than a few others, and the same is evident. What encourages me about Angola is that things are definitely improving.
The Economist predicts growth of over 21 per cent GDP this year, the highest of any country in the world. The changes wrought in the first years of peace are truly breathtaking. Cynics say this is merely the government trying to win imminent elections to continue their decades long reign but name me a government around the world that has not curried the favour of its electorate with a few well thrown crumbs? Here, they are tossing whole bread rolls and that can only be a good thing for a long suffering population.
In his excellent book, The State of Africa, Martin Meredith argues convincingly that major impediments to development in Africa are weak or non-existent land title laws. In developed countries, we may suffer outrageous taxation but at least we can demonstrate legal ownership of what we have. Or at least the banks can. In Africa it was impossible to register the benefits accrued through years of hard labour.
This means the poor will always be poor. A budding entrepreneur with a spark might create a nascent business but without access to finance, his enterprise will remain just that, a good idea generating enough to survive but not enough surplus capital to turn it into a thriving concern.
That, in Angola at least, is about to change.
It was always possible to gain some sort of tentative grasp on property. Title may have been elusive, all property then owned by the State, but you could buy the ‘Chaves’, the ‘Keys’. So, in spite of socialism, property continued to change hands. If you had enough spare cash, you could persuade the original occupants to find somewhere else to live allowing you to accommodate a growing family.
The trouble was, you could not actually own it. Imagine; billions of dollars of potential wealth rendered worthless.
It was rather like possessing a stolen work of art. Sure, you could enjoy it and nominally it was worth a lot but in reality, as an exchangeable commodity, it was toilet paper. Certainly no bank would accept it as collateral.
Granting legal title allows the entrepreneurial spirit access to finance, the leg up they need to turn their idea and hard work into sustainable reality. It allows the many banks that have set up here in Angola keen to do business to lend, confident that their investments are covered. Empower the emergent middle classes and they will be the driving force of the economy. No longer will the value of land be measured solely in terms of the Cassava or Maize it produces or the cattle that graze on it. It will have a tangible value legally recognised by government and financial institutions. It is the break they have all been waiting for without realising it.
At last, a so-called authoritarian and recently socialist government is taking the lead by granting the people their right: personal security and above all, security of tenure. I hope they stop short of high income tax, capital gains tax and death duty but, at the moment, they are on the right track.
A few days ago I was ordered to present the documentation for my house and land at the local government offices. To my surprise, this was not an attempt to fleece me. I was informed that in accordance with new legislation, all local authorities had to survey their areas and register all property so that legal title can finally be confirmed.
The new property law came into effect in Angola on the 15th of June. The local authorities have until September to register all claims. I discussed this with my neighbours, some of whom have land but until now could not afford to build so live in tin shacks. We are all very excited. It means that those who need to can borrow against their land and build. Some want houses. Others restaurants and shops. A depressed neighbourhood will suddenly become affluent and just think of all that employment.
On paper, we are worth a lot more than a week ago. Imagine how much more wealth will be generated with access to capital. Maybe the Economist should revise its forecast because there are a lot of us that cannot sleep at night. Not through worry, but through unaccustomed anticipation.