Angola's black market thrives as economy wanes


LUANDA, Angola -- It's Sunday morning in Luanda, and the open-air market known as Plaza Congolesa is abuzz with activity as shoppers squeeze past stalls crammed full of goods of every kind.

The goods are organized in careful order, with produce and meat stalls in one busy section, imported liquors a few rows away and electronic goods near the far end of the market. This is the Macy's of open-air African markets. It has everything from every part of the world, thanks to Angola's busy port, which receives imported goods from across the globe to compensate for the collapse in industry at home.

Angola is a country of contradictions. It has a major oil industry -- the only thriving industry in the country other than the black market -- which accounts for most of the country's foreign earnings.

Multinational companies pump crude oil off the coast of the little enclave of Cabinda in northern Angola, bringing more than $1 billion in foreign earnings a year, while people line up at government stores to buy a meager ration of cooking oil. Most of the foreign earnings are used to pay government wartime expenses rather than to stimulate a domestic economy.

Hospitals are short of medicines needed to treat victims of the civil war, but a well-stocked pharmacy section exists at the outdoor market in Luanda.

Water supplies across the country are so unhealthy that the country has experienced a cholera epidemic, yet a shopper at Plaza Congolesa could buy a bottle of French champagne, a quart of Johnny Walker Red or a bottle of Glenfiddich malt scotch.

The champagne was the good stuff, Moet & Chandon, which costs more than $20 a bottle at liquor stores in the United States. At the "informal market" in Luanda, the asking price was 16,000 kwanzas, the official currency. A dollar is worth 60 kwanzas at the official exchange rate, but at that rate a package of four onions (1,000 kwanzas) would cost Angolan shoppers the equivalent of $16. At the black market rate of 900 kwanzas to the dollar, those same four onions were going for $1.11.

French champagne would be unaffordable at the official rate. The bottle of Moet would be a whopping $266, but at black market prices it would go for a little over $16.

Because the good things in life are out of reach for most Luanda pocketbooks at the official rate -- indeed, most people couldn't feed their families -- virtually nobody does business at that rate.

They use a barter system in which cases of beer are the preferred currency. So you see women walking through the streets every day balancing boxes of beer on their heads. Workers stream out of the front gates of Luanda's port Friday afternoons laden with cases of beer.

Angolans have made the kwanza irrelevant basically by ignoring it, wreaking havoc on the formal economy.

"They've calculated that 68 percent of the goods in the market come from the port," said an official of one international agency. "People steal them, which means the government finances the parallel market." Some companies also pay their employees in commodities instead of kwanzas to make it easier for the workers to make ends meet.

Major hotels won't do business in kwanzas if they can get dollars. American Express cards are welcomed at Le Presidente Meridien, which charges $130 a night for a closet of a room and brazenly demands $50 for a buffet lunch.

Only the government does business at the official rate, which puts its workers at a tremendous disadvantage and probably explains the high theft rate at the port.

"The discrepancy between this official rate, which dominates the labor market, and the unofficial rate, which dominates the 'kandonga' or black market, is causing immeasurable hardship," according to a UNICEF article titled "Staying Alive."

The hardship is not evident at Plaza Congolesa or at the bigger markets such as Roque Santeiro (named after a Brazilian soap opera).

At Congolesa, a shopper could find Sharp, Philips and Samsung television sets for 550,000 kwanzas, or $611. A gas stove was about the same price, and a large refrigerator carried a price tag of 780,000 kwanzas, or $866.

At Roque Santeiro on Sunday afternoon, there was a large bedding section, probably a reflection of what came into the port that week. Single- and double-bed mattresses could be purchased with their plastic covers still intact, along with carved wooden headboards that were among the few items made locally.

A dining-room table set carried a price tag of 180,000 kwanzas ($200 at the black market rate), but that was only the starting price, and the salesman said immediately that the price was negotiable.

When he was told that his potential buyer was a journalist checking out the market rather than a bona fide customer, he said he would have taken 100,000 kwanzas from a native buyer.

At 10,000 kwanzas a case, make that 100 cases of beer.

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