Africa’s richest woman
Everyone has a story to tell about mysterious Isabel dos Santos
As you drive northwards out of Luanda on one of the recently built highways, large executive apartments stand new and pristine – white with blue trimmings.
To rent one of these two-bedroom apartments would set you back at least $3 000 (R25 800) a month – too much for the average Angolan. So they stand empty.
“This all belongs to Isabel,” my translator, George, explains. “All of this is hers.”
Isabel dos Santos, daughter of President José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled Angola for the past 33 years, is probably the country’s most well-known woman.
Everyone talks of her dazzling wealth that got her the top spot on Forbes’ list of the richest women in Africa. She is estimated to be worth at least $170 million, although some estimates go up to $1.3 billion.
More than her wealth, it is the mystery that surrounds her that makes her the most talked about woman in town.
Everyone, from the translator to the driver to the well-educated civil society officials, have an Isabel story to tell – some more flattering than others.
Some point to housing projects, others talk about her diamond exploits or her success in telecommunications.
“There are very few business areas in Angola where she does not play a role,” said a local civil society leader.
No one wants their names printed because the politics of retribution is allegedly the mainstay of Dos Santos’ regime.
They talk of their phones being tapped as if it is a way of life and the less well to do say they’ve been told from a very young age not to talk about politics because “it will do you no good”.
Reports about how Isabel flew in guests without visas for her wedding in a ceremony that was reported to have cost $4 million for 1 000 guests in 2003 are still in locals’ minds.
Isabel met her husband, Sindika Dokolo, the son of a millionaire from Kinshasa, while studying business management in London.
Very few people I met during my two weeks in Angola to cover the national elections had ever seen her in real life and no one had ever spoken to her. One local said she’s a regular on the Marginal, a strip of beach clubs and restaurants where only the rich go, but I could find no one who had actually ever seen her there. Mentioning her is probably just a marketing gimmick for the area.
In a rare public appearance shortly before the elections, she joined her father for the opening of the new beach front in Luanda.
With her father’s second wife, Ana Paula, her brother José Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos and her sister, Tchize, they rolled up in a convoy of black armour-enforced Mercedes and Land Rovers, with the public looking on from a secure 100 metres away.
For the occasion, Isabel left her hard-core businesswoman look in the boardroom, and stepped out of the car confident and carefree.
She flashed big smiles for the cameras as she walked down the red carpet. When it was time to go into the marquee erected for the event, she walked in next to her father with a determined look. She understood she was there with a job to do: win votes for her dad.
Afterwards, the family was taken on a tour of the world-class palm-shaded promenade, with 100 bodyguards, officials and hangers-on in tow.
But if you turn away from the beach towards the city, a different picture emerges.
Two streets up from the four-lane beach road you soon see pools of dirty water filling potholes in the streets. The smell of urine, sewage and rubbish follows you.
Luanda is a city originally built for 1 million people, locals say, but now it houses slightly less than 5 million.
Although construction is taking place all over the city, most people live in slum areas on the city’s outskirts. For them, the only artery into the sparkling centre is the traffic-choked highway, a hardship elites can avoid because roads are closed when they want to move around.
It is clear locals have a love-hate relationship with Isabel, who turns 40 next year. They are clearly enamoured with her beauty and amazing wealth, but they are suspicious it may have come at their expense – it is believed that at least some of her money was meant for the state fiscus.
She is Dos Santos’ eldest daughter, born in Azerbaijan from his marriage to Russian beauty Tatiana Cergueevna Regan, who now lives in London.
Isabel was 24 when she was introduced to the business world by her father, whose business interests are closely intertwined with his political power.
She now owns stakes in telecommunications, banks, diamond and oil ventures – through complicated business deals in Angola, and as far afield as Malta and Portugal. But her interests are always closely connected with those of one or more of her father’s allies, either in the military or in the ruling party of Angola, the MPLA.
Reports in Portuguese newspapers say last year she bought a sizeable chunk of Banco BPI, a Portuguese bank, as well as a stake in the Portuguese telecoms company Zon Multimedia. Locally, she is the main shareholder in Banco Internacional de Crédito and is involved in the Geni group of companies, which have interests in banking, oil, diamonds and construction, and own Unitel, Angola’s main telecoms company.
MPLA spokesperson Ruis Falcao says the party has no problem with the vast riches of the president, and his family and associates. “The family interests of President dos Santos are mostly in telecommunications. He also has a company that sells cement and his family had the capacity to build a bank,” he said in an interview in the MPLA headquarters.
“We are proud of how well he is doing. Before the Portuguese left in 1975, there was no black businessman in Angola. Now there are many and they do well.”
Not everyone in Luanda shares this view. Albertine Koria (24), a nurse in a teaching college in Luanda Sul, is one of them.
“The president’s family is a powerful family. They have power in everything. Everything good we see in Luanda is for Mister President. He should give more jobs, more salaries, schools, libraries, more spaces like this,” she says, pointing to an outside gym in Samba, a Luanda suburb.
Mathole Baptista (22), a student in economics, says the Dos Santos family has been too rich for too long. “I think that he is good, but he has been for a too long time in government. I’d like to see other people there because they can do better (in governing) than the president.”
But despite shying away from media interviews, Isabel seems eager to defend her and her father’s reputation in the media.
In October 2007 she lodged a formal complaint against Italian journalist Giulia Vola.
According to local journalist Rafael Marquez this followed an article titled The Black Goddess of Intrigues, in which Vola described Isabel as reigning over a vast empire of financial interests, courtesy of her father.
Isabel’s complaint was a curious one, given the facts about her business involvement, and the dubious political credibility of her father and his party.
In her complaint she insisted: “I am the daughter of President José Eduardo dos Santos and I do not manage any assets, much less a financial ‘empire’ belonging to the president, an ‘empire’ which simply does not exist.”
The Dos Santos family may be finding making money is not enough. Dos Santos wants to improve his image as a statesman and has started to play a more active role in regional politics.
But South African businessmen are wary of Angola, saying the family’s involvement makes doing business hard.
Even South African ambassador to Angola Godfrey Ngwenya admitted that the benefits of the newly invigorated relationship between South Africa and Angola have not been reaped yet.
South Africa, for instance, chose to increase oil imports from Saudi Arabia instead o
f Angola because of difficulty in reaching agreements with Angolan oil exporters.
But for Isabel, whom politicians say has no interest in politics, business is booming.