High Times in Angola

Yotam Feldman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yotam Feldman

LUANDA, ANGOLA - Motley groups of children play amid rickety lean-tos and makeshift booths in the streets of the crowded shantytowns of Luanda, the capital of Angola in south-central Africa. Their mothers scamper between them, with a variety of objects, from cooking pots to handbags, arranged on their heads in neat stacks, which also afford protection from the raindrops at the start of the rainy season. At the sight of the fancy Land Cruiser, the children momentarily stop their games and cast a curious gaze at the road.

A glance at the city's streets does not disclose the role played in their life by tens of thousands of white residents, including hundreds of Israelis. Oil, diamond, weapons and construction companies are involved in the local economy, and determine the inhabitants' fate as much as the local government - and sometimes far more. Generally the Angolans see white people through the windows of the foreign companies' SUVs, as managers and advisers at their jobs, or at night in fashionable bars and restaurants. Few enter the gated, heavily guarded compounds in which the whites live.

The driver, Matthew, steers the jeep slowly through the congested lanes. When the vehicle stops for a few minutes it is besieged by children hawking a peculiar assortment of wares - cans of soft drinks, small lightbulbs, electrical wires, toilet plungers, bunches of bananas. When we enter the compound of the Israeli-owned LR Group, Matthew snaps to life. A guard wearing a black beret with a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over his shoulder nods us through the gate. The huge corporation, run by three former Israel Air Force pilots - Ami Lustig, Eytan Stibbe and Roy Ben-Yami - maintains very close ties with the government here. Since the beginning of the 1990s, they have been selling a wide range of products and services to Angola, such as military equipment and training programs, construction services, agricultural aid and communications devices.

On the other side of the gate is a large courtyard that surrounds an abandoned hotel; its dark rooms resemble the set of a horror movie. But, according to Gabi Nahum, an LR deputy CEO, it will soon house the company employees, who now live in condominiums in Luanda.

Sitting around a table in the yard is a merry group of young people who recently completed their service in the Israel Defense Forces and are now working for the Angolan navy and air force. At another table is the manager of an LR subsidiary, which provides Angola with mapping services. Splashing about in the pool are the children of Picho Mizrahi, who manages an LR construction firm and lives in Luanda with his family. Polite black waiters make the rounds among the guests, most of whom are white, carrying trays piled with sausages and much more. Two waitresses serve Heineken and Crystal, a local beer, while three black women dancers gyrate somewhat listlessly, their bodies decorated with gold sequins. Following a festive speech delivered by Nahum in Portuguese, the music picks up a little and a few of the company's Brazilian employees sway to the rhythm. Some of the Israelis feel they should join them, but are clearly out of their league and quickly sidle back to their tables. On the other side of the yard are a few dozen black people - local employees of the company and chauffeurs who will return the Israelis to their homes at the end of the evening. "There's nothing you can do about it," one Israeli whispers. "They are lazy, they don't like to work."

For veteran residents, the white presence in the country is nothing new. It is hard to believe that they do not see a certain continuity between the centuries of Portuguese rule in their country - from the 16th century until 1975 - and the foreigners who are here today. No great effort is required to see that the basic body language that accompanied old race relations continues to exist - the submissive manner of speech, the cowed body language - as well as the same underlying resentment that, one assumes, still exists against those who are here to get rich in someone else's country.

"The life of all the whites here consists of making money around the clock," I am told a few days later by Elazar Benjamin, an affable Israeli building contractor who lives in Luanda. For most of the foreigners, he says, the blacks are no more than extras in the main story: namely, the white man's business interests in the country.

The departure of the Portuguese occupiers touched off a civil war, which in large measure was a confrontation between whites. The United States and South Africa supported the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi, while the Soviet Union and Cuba backed the ruling socialist party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), under the leadership of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the country's current president.

In the 1990s, Israelis also began assisting the government's forces. The LR Group, Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak and several Israeli arms dealers supplied dos Santos' forces with equipment that, in the view of some Angolans, determined the war. According to many reports, Israelis helped in the killing of the rebel leader Savimbi in 2002, an event that ended the fighting. The shared memories of the fierce battles and Israel's backing of the government, which suffered from an international embargo, undoubtedly strengthened the preferential treatment then accorded the Israeli entrepreneurs by the government - not to mention by the president himself. The Israelis were integrated into projects run by the state, which shed its socialist heritage almost completely.

Identical starting points

A few days after the party I was in a small executive jet, making my way from Luanda to the lushly verdant Waku Kungo valley, which formerly housed a Portuguese colony and was known as the "Valley of Milk" because of the abundance of cows bred by the colonizers. This is the site of LR's Aldeia Nova (New Village) project, in which discharged soldiers from both sides of the local conflict are being settled, using a model similar to the immigrant-absorption villages established in Israel in the 1950s. The similarity of some of the villages to the moshavim (cooperative farming villages) of the Lachish region betrays the source of the inspiration.

Since the onset of the project, this devastated district, which was the victim of repeated conquests by both sides in the war, has become prosperous and assumed modern trappings. The company has built modern brick buildings to replace the villagers' mud abodes, provided them with livestock to maintain productive farms and has trained the former soldiers, who had no civilian experience, in agriculture. The local diet, which had been based on cornmeal mush, has improved and residents have adopted more efficient work habits.

As in such projects in Israel, the starting point for every family was identical, irrespective of its size and needs: Each one received a house, basic furniture and animals (cows, pigs or chickens). LR is paid by the Angolan government for managing the project, which plays a large part in its public-relations activity here, as part of efforts to promote profitable projects in other spheres as well.

"Our approach is far more practical than what we had in the 1950s," Nahum says in reference to the project's social conception. "The idea of cooperation does not exist traditionally. In the 1950s people were sold an ideology, which held that the authorities would solve all problems. In practice, we see that the faster a moshav discovered that the establishment did not solve its problems and that a parasitic relationship might develop, the more it thrived. In this project we exposed the family to economic logic from the beginning."

In contrast to countries such as Rwanda or South Africa, in Angola no governmental effort to conciliate between the sides was undertaken after the war. Similarly, despite the atrocities perpetrated in the fighting, no one has been tried for war crimes. The decision to compel the soldiers from both sides to live together was made by President dos Santos. Thus, a third of the project's participants are from UNITA, a third from MPLA, and the rest are people who had lived in the valley before. According to the Israelis, some of the residents were involved in the murder of civilians. Nevertheless, there have been no known attempts to settle scores and the tensions that surely exist remain below the surface.

The pilot, Daryo, is happy to be visiting his farm in the valley. His 13-year-old son leans over the controls and tries to learn the ropes from his father. Sitting next to me is Avi Shalev, a former Israel Navy officer, who is in charge of the settlement project. He has cropped white hair and wears a thin gold chain around his neck.

"I have no experience in agriculture, but I do have experience in leading people, especially problematic people," he says in response to my question of how he came to be working in Africa. "I was deputy commander of a logistics base, which is where the most problematic people in the army are assigned."

Seated behind us are another LR representative and four emissaries of the president of Congo, who will examine the project to see whether it is applicable to their country.

Shalev, who is a bit short-tempered and irritable, speaks to the project staff in clipped army lingo, although with great fondness. His authentic Zionist enthusiasm is unmistakable as he describes the project's achievements.

At night, explains Esther Feigenbaum, a computer expert who works in the valley, he takes out his laptop and sings Hebrew songs. Before the project got under way, some of the residents of the mud homes on whose land the new villages were established were evacuated.

"The Angolans do that, not us," Shalev notes. "If they think that foreigners are being brought in to remove them from their homes, that could be very bad. We don't want them saying that the white man kicked them out."

The people who are fortunate to live in the villages were chosen after a selection process, he adds: "We work together with the local discharged soldiers organization, which refers people to us. There are also interviews. We want to be sure that they are not drunks and that they can be taught what a family unit is. If it's a man who has four wives whom he sleeps with and who also work for him, it's a no-go."

The Angolan men who want to live in the new communities sign an agreement undertaking to live with one woman only, abstain from drink, sell their produce exclusively through a co-op, send their children to school and not beat their wives. The ban on polygamy in a society in which the phenomenon is rampant may seem surprising, but, according to Shalev, it is based on a simple economic calculation. "How can we ensure that the farm will thrive if the husband sends part of his money to a woman he is supporting?" he asks.

Even more amazing than the attempt to change the locals' intimate ways of life by a decree from above is perhaps the fact that the transformation was initiated by a foreign commercial firm. Its staff, in particular the local managers, also supervise the villagers to ensure they are fulfilling their commitments. "If someone lied to us in the interview and has more than one wife, we find out in no time," Shalev says.

The company, of course, is not responsible for the effect the new economic model has on Angolans who do not live in the villages. For example, if a farmer in the project had provided for another wife in Luanda, it is not clear who will support her now. "But that is really not our problem," Nahum says. "The head of the family cannot send money without ensuring a minimum living standard for his family."

Shalev takes me on a tour of the valley. Along the village paths children lead cows to be milked between disintegrating Portuguese colonial estates, mud homes and structures that belong to the new project. In some of the yards children are playing with a hoop, chasing and turning it with a stick like European children did decades ago. Some of the children wave and ask us for a ride, but Shalev ignores them. (The company's policy is not to give rides to local residents in order to avoid lawsuits in the event of an accident.)

Shalev parks the jeep next to a pigsty. A couple of local youths amble over. "Is something wrong? Why are you here?" one of them asks, slightly apprehensive; Shalev assures him that we have just come for a visit. After proudly presenting a hog feeding her five cubs in a cramped pen, he explains: "The model is what we had in the Land of Israel. There will be good families and others that are not so good. At the moment we are subsidizing them, but at a later stage a decision will be made to end the subsidization, at which point there are two options: either their farm will go down the tubes or they will start to work. If someone who is inherently lazy just waits for the subsidy to arrive, then you are raising parasites here, not working people. We do not want to raise parasites, right?"

'They eat too well'

The Israeli employees live in an abandoned Portuguese hotel, which has a large staff of local workers under the supervision of Musha Sofer, a 60-year-old resident of the Golan Heights who gained fame for breeding the cow that was Israel's "milk queen," producing the largest quantity of milk in the country in 2004 and 2005. Sofer, who divorced her husband in the 1980s and became an independent farmer, afterward opened a pub in the Golan and dreamed all her life of running a guesthouse in India. Instead, she decided less than a year ago to go to Africa.

Sofer keeps the workers on a short lease. "They eat too well," she complains. "They all got fat here. I saw them taking chicken out of the refrigerator. I asked them who it was for and they told me it was for them. I told them to put it back immediately. I have a budget for bread, for butter. They get money for food, so let them use it. If my father had caught them doing that, he would have killed them."

At dinner, which consists of dishes of rice, vegetables, beans, meat and even labaneh, which is made in the valley, Feigenbaum describes how Israelis come to be in Africa. "Everyone who is here is running away from something," she says. She herself fled from mourning her late husband and from the lonely routine at home. Many of the men are evading their families - wives or former wives, economic problems, kibbutzim that were privatized or just plain loneliness, she notes. Life in one of the last regions still perceived as unreachable affords them a haven from their woes.

The young Israelis employed in the project are sitting around a different table. In their twenties, they are here for a year or two, mainly to save up money from the generous salaries the company pays.

"Angola is a golden cage," says Danielle, 22, from Ramle, who three months ago followed her partner here and was hired by LR. "That means everything is very accessible, yet you can't touch anything. I can't walk on the street, I can't go to the market. I am in contact with people at work, but I have not really been able to get the feel of the place."

Her boyfriend, Liad, who is 27, is the manager of the plant that manufactures the homes. His auburn hair is cut short, army style, and he is wearing a Pull and Bear shirt. Responsibility for dozens of local workers is only a stage in his planned life course, he explains: "I knew that at a certain stage I would be in charge of 140 workers. At most I can say that it happened sooner than I expected."

In the meantime, he seems to be getting good training: "There are workers with whom I deliberately do not stay uninvolved, so I can understand the plight of others," he says. "I bring them presents all the time to preserve the positive communications with the others. If they feel comfortable [with me], I will hear about the workers' distresses."

I ask him about the large disparity between the salaries of the Israelis and those of the locals, which range between $100 and $200 a month. He says he has overcome the uneasiness. "I am personally upset when at the end of the month I sign off on a salary of $120 for someone, and know I am earning many times more that that," he says. "It's very hard for me, but that is their standard of living. If you make $300 you are considered rich, and if someone is able to feel that he is rich, you have done your job."

"Besides," Danielle adds, "they are not doing anything to get out of their wretchedness. It's convenient for them to think of themselves like that, as being deprived, as inferior." She was surprised, she says, to discover how deeply rooted the race relations and the feeling of slavery are in the villagers.

"The race thing exists mainly in the way the locals behave," she says. "If a woman hands you something, she lowers her back and head a little, and offers it to you with two hands, submissively. It's nonstop 'sorry' and 'please' and 'thank you,' even if they laugh about it themselves. One time I told my chauffeur to bring his children to our place. He brought his daughter, who started to cry when she saw me. I was told it was the first time she had ever seen a white person."

'Screwed-up genes'

In a small office behind milking machines is Amazia (not his real name), 69, from Zichron Yaakov, who describes himself as an expert in cattle in tropical climates. He has worked in Brazil and South Africa, he says. Wearing a red Israeli kova tembel (traditional kibbutznik-type cap) that shields his white hair even from the fluorescent light in the office, he hunches over a computer that keeps him updated on milk production. The information informs him not only about the state of the cows, but also about the work ethic of the villagers, who are supposed to bring the animals to be milked, but do not always do so. Before coming to Angola he worked for an Israeli company until it was privatized; an agricultural company that he himself had founded encountered financial difficulties.

"The truth is that this is the crappiest place I have been to in my life," he admits. "Look at our living conditions here. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do. If I were offered work in Brazil, there is no way I would be here. But we do get respect here. A few days ago, someone invited me for a meal in his home, because the minister of agriculture was visiting him. You see, the minister of agriculture wants to dine with me. In Israel the only place I saw Shalom Simhon [the agriculture minister] was on television."

Even though the Israelis transferred the project to the residents of Angola in a ceremony held at the end of 2007, it is clear from what Amazia and others say that the great majority do not believe in the ability of the locals to manage their lives by themselves. Moreover, it appears as though the dependence of the local people on Israeli management makes it impossible for the latter to leave.

"What can I say?" Amazia sighs. "There is something screwed up in their genes. There is a local manager here and I am supposed to be his adviser. The problem is that he doesn't have a clue. He comes here sometimes and does - I don't know what he does. In fact, he doesn't show up anymore. If we leave, the whole thing will collapse. It's hard for them to accept responsibility or to understand what is important and what is not important."

Doesn't the dependence on the Israelis create a somewhat tragic situation if they want to be independent?

Amazia: "In my opinion, there is no problem here. There are countries in Latin America that have national pride, but here they are aware of their dependence on us, the whites, and they don't want you to leave. They tell me so."

Many of the Israelis complain about the local residents' laziness, about their refusal to learn, and believe that the moment the Israeli company pulls out the entire project will crumble. Yossi (not his real name), who is helping residents to manage poultry farms, shares these feelings. Despite his best efforts of persuasion, he laments, in the morning the poultry breeders do not lift the curtains that cover the coops at night.

Their dependence on the whites will not abate soon, Yossi predicts: "I don't think they see us as ra'isim [Arabic for "bosses"] or as the white man who has come to rule them. After all, we came to help them. The problem is that they don't really want that help. They are lazy, a lazy nation. It's a war of attrition - it means explaining things time and again, and if they don't get it, you have to get angry and shout at them and punish them if necessary."

The impression gleaned from remarks by other staff at the project is not only that the Israelis do not expect the Angolans to manage their lives by themselves. The attitude of some of the Israelis appears to be outright contempt and gross racism. An engineer relates that he was asked to build a platform for the ceremony in which formal authority over the villages would be transferred to the Angolans. After he complained about a shortage of construction materials, his (Israeli) manager suggested that he bring iron beds and place a board on top of them.

"I explained to him that it is impossible to use iron beds on the grass, because they would sink into the ground and people would fall," the engineer relates. "His reply was, 'What do you care,' and finished with a racial epithet. Do you understand, that is what the project manager told me," the engineer said. (The manager was subsequently dismissed.) In other cases, the engineer continues, the disdain for the local inhabitants brought about construction of a very low standard, which does not approach that used in Israel. According to him, a senior LR manager explained to the workers that the long-term stability of the buildings was not necessarily the most important factor. "He told them that the most important thing was for the front to be painted well, so the paint would stick."

Nahum takes a more reassuring tone: "In general, the people we have believe in the project and are committed to it. They are here to work. I don't think that people with racist outlooks could last long working in Africa."

Nahum is also far more optimistic about the possibility of transferring authority for the project to local hands: "I agree that the day on which the Israelis leave will be the ultimate test. Four years down the line I see a far higher presence and involvement of Angolans. If a year ago I hardly consulted with the Angolan manager; these days I meet with him three times a week. We hoped there would be greater independence. We recalled how in the mid-1950s, the new-immigrant moshavim were alone. We hoped that this would happen here in 2008, and now we see that it will not happen in 2009, either, but that's the direction."

Local sex

The next day I travel with Shalev to an observation point over the whole valley. On the way people approach him about breakdowns and repairs. What emerges from a conversation with him is that despite the great frustration, the hard work and the longing for home, life in Africa offers some compensation for those who must bear "the white man's burden." Thus, when I ask him what the Israeli staff does in its free time, apart from surfing the Web and reading, he loses the little patience he has and advises me not to believe what people tell me. "Everything you were told is rumors," he snaps.

What do you mean?

Shalev: "Don't believe anything people tell you."

Like what?

"If someone wants to do something with a local woman, it is completely his business and we have no way to prohibit it. There is a discotheque here and they can meet whomever they want. All we ask is that they do not bring them to the rooms. That is so those who do not bring them will not be envious and also in order not to cause chaos. If women come and go all the time, we won't be able to run a business here."

In retrospect, it emerges that the relations between the white project staff and the local women are a very significant part of the men's lives. Those relations have also generated criticism and caused scandals. One LR employee was given the boot after a local resident told the company's managers that he had slept with a 16-year-old girl.

Elad, a smiling young man of 22 with a magnificent mane of hair, who came to Africa shortly after completing his army service, explains: "There are two types of people here: Those who fuck every day and those who fuck occasionally. Things are not tough for the first type, especially if they know the language. You stroll on the street a little and it's not hard to find [what you want]. If you take a soda can from the hotel and bring it to a worker, he will stare at it for an hour before drinking. It's pretty much the same with girls."

Elad says he is in the second category. "When you need release, you do it. It's easier than back home, because they like having a white boyfriend here. There's a discotheque that we go to once a week and you can meet girls there. But all in all, I don't have fun with them; the hygienic level is not high. Usually it's half an hour, 40 minutes, in the car. We are not allowed to bring them to our place, and her home is a mud house. I will not lie to someone and tell her we will be in touch when that is not my intention. It's clear to both sides that it's a short-term deal."

That approach is not unique to Waku Kungo and certainly not to Israelis. In Luanda the employees enjoy a greater variety of bars and clubs, which feature a cool pick-up scene.

"You won't find women like this anywhere in the world," says Ross, a blond, muscular Scot, whom I met at Chill Out, a club on the city's seaside.

"The Angolan women are the easiest; there is no problem with them," he says. "After them come the mixed women, then the Portuguese. The white women here are the hardest. But with the locals it's a cinch. Maybe there are a few with education who will make a face if you ask for a blow job, but in the end, when you are in the room with her, she will do it just like anyone else."

Nahum: "We have sharp, clear regulations. We don't do anything in company facilities, and that is cause to send people home. We do not have morality police, and you bring people on the assumption that they will be guided by their cultural norms. If there is excessive behavior, we deal with it. Our message is: 'You are not private individuals, you represent us.'"

Grateful government

Waiting for me in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Luanda is Moshe Britash, an independent entrepreneur and arms dealer - a term he dislikes - who has worked in Africa for 24 years, 14 of them in Angola. Britash has very close ties to the leaders of the military government and the police in the country. He has brokered a few huge deals between the Angolan government and Israeli companies such as Israel Aircraft Industries, Soltam and Tadiran. The transactions have been the subject of never-ending court cases, in the wake of disputes between the various partners. Two years ago it was reported that Britash had brokered three arms deals worth $1 billion between Israel and Angola, for which he received a 20-percent commission.

Britash denied the reports and continues to maintain that he does not take commissions: "If someone wants to buy something, I look for it everywhere. I buy it at a price that I work out with them. There is no commission. They should be happy with the work I do. I waste precious time; I am far from my family."

Fifty years old, bespectacled and smiling, Britash projects an air of softness. He tends to get carried away telling stories of past heroics and describing the considerable influence he wields today. When it looks like the restaurant is about to close, the diners leave and one of the workers starts to mop the floor. Britash reassures me: "He is not the one to decide." The sumptuous buffet meal we are having costs almost as much as the average monthly wage in the country.

Like others who have sold arms to Angola, Britash is a major spearhead of Israeli involvement in the country. The government's gratitude to Israel for its role in bringing to an end the war against the UNITA rebels played a large part in opening business opportunities for Israelis here.

Explaining his disdain for the term "arms dealer" - "I do not sell rifles, I sell technologies" - Britash relates that he tells his daughters, who live in Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem, that he is a businessman. "I told them that if anyone asks them, they should say they don't know. How is that different from any other girl, who says her father is a businessman without knowing exactly what he does?"

He continues: "I am not a general. I am a moshavnik nicknamed Chico, who started out gradually, without studying anything. That is a problem for a lot of people. The Israelis don't know what to make of me. That's how it is. I am an odd bird. People don't understand how a master sergeant succeeds where generals fail."

Do you take an interest in what people do with your products?

Britash: "That is not my responsibility and it is not my business. Everything I have done has had the authorization of the Defense Ministry. If it was used wrongly, it would generate a reaction. I am not a traitor to my country. If you consider that guy who went to Lebanon [Elhanan Tennenbaum], I was in situations like that, I could have gotten into that without any problem, but I never even considered it. I was offered a great deal of money, by the way."

How central is bribery for people who do business here?

"There are laws here, things work in certain ways and you need the cooperation of locals. That's how it works: If you build a house you have to get their cooperation, if you want a room in a hotel, you need cooperation."

Britash went to work in Liberia when he was 26, after he heard about the country's economic potential. Until then he was a security guard in courthouses and had begun a preparatory course for university. He worked in Liberia first as a lumberjack, along with the contractor Mordechai Yona (recently convicted of defrauding clients) and five other Israelis. "It was really hard work. The blacks check you all the time, you have to be alert. I saw plenty of Israelis get beaten because they didn't know how to behave."

He says he worked for two years with Yoel Gorodish, the brother of Shmuel Gorodish (a major general, who was found by the Agranat Commission to have failed in his duties during the Yom Kippur War, and afterward turned to business ventures in Africa). The two were looking for quarries in Mozambique, he explains. Britash was responsible for the fieldwork and Gorodish for the ties with the investors. He waxes enthusiastic about the life they shared in the jungle and about how he coped with all the challenges.

"I am not one of those for whom fear is a significant part of their life, because in the jungle anything can happen. You can get bitten, you can run into huge snakes, you can be eaten. Someone suddenly disappears and you ask where he is, and the reply is that no one knows and it's best not to ask. You learn the rules as you go. If someone tells you not to go to a certain place, you should listen to him, even if he looks like a dumbbell and a drunk who doesn't have a clue."

Britash came to Angola, he says, after he was persuaded by blacks in Mozambique that he would succeed there. When he arrived, he relates, fighting still raged in the country and there were no hotels in the city. After he managed to find a guesthouse, he asked where the city's most famous restaurant was. "I was told that there was some Vietnamese restaurant in the city and I settled in there. I sat there the whole day. On the first day no one knows you, but as the days pass more people notice you and start to talk."

As he formed closer ties with the government, Britash says, he grasped the potential of the relations between Israel and Angola. "I understood that Israel has things that can be of help to them. We have technologies and we have security equipment. Before I started talking to them, I told the Defense Ministry I was in Angola. They asked which side I was talking to and I told them the government side. I got the ministry's authorization."

Was it that simple?

Britash: "What do you mean? It's the Defense Ministry. If I had lied to them they would have put me in jail