Isabel’s People

When Forbes, who used to celebrate the Dos Santos family, starts asking questions about the wealth of Angola's rulers.

Isabel dos Santos, Wiki Commons.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one heard it fall, did it really fall? If one is a billionaire in Angola and Forbes hasn’t yet reported on it, are they really a billionaire? In a rather hastily researched article last January, US magazine Forbes declared Isabel dos Santos, daughter of Angolan president in power for 34 years and counting, José Eduardo dos Santos, as Africa’s richest woman, estimating her wealth to be in excess of $3 billion. This in a country where most live in the type of squalor befitting a population that survives on less than $2 a day.

Forbes is well known for their superfluous lists of the world’s super rich. When they finally turned their attentions to Angola and passed off their original article as some sort of breaking news story, many Angolans and Angola-watchers felt understandably miffed that what they had known about and reported for years was suddenly big news, just because Forbes had “broken” the story. We don’t read Forbes that often, but we wonder if this sets an unusual precedent in terms of questioning people’s fortunes. Surely Isabel is not the only billionaire in the world whose wealth comes from highly dubious origins?

Anyone who researches or has any knowledge of Angola’s reality knows exactly who siphons off the country’s oil wealth; the subject has been extensively researched by numerous entities and new reports about corruption scandals continue to surface seemingly every year.

Nonetheless, Forbes has a huge reach and a solid reputation among the business community in Angola and elsewhere. And so it was that Jornal de Angola, Angola’s state-owned government mouth piece, only nationwide daily newspaper and constant subject of ridicule loudly sang Isabel’s praises in colossal front-page letters, announcing her as Africa’s first woman billionaire; for them it was proof that their beloved government was doing something right. They heralded Forbes’ billionaire coronation as a moment every Angolan should be proud of. Many Angolans, however, knowing the truth, were not so enthused.

Two days ago however, Forbes published a new story, stinging in its criticism and poignant in its wit, exposing Isabel’s wealth as the ill-gotten gains of a corrupt, unscrupulous regime.

Angolan social media was set on fire. The article, co-written by Mr. Marques, was biting. Information was presented factually in short but effective paragraphs, leaving little room for imagination or misinterpretation. It is a nice example of investigative journalism, albeit with a few flaws: some of us here at AIAC do still find the tone a little uncomfortable, almost as if having “broken” the news Isabel was rich, Forbes is now “breaking” the fact it came from corruption, while others question the typical smack about ‘African dictators’ ill gotten gains, as if capitalism is just fine and there is just some special disconnect in emerging economies.

Our gripes notwithstanding, the article was massively disseminated within and beyond the Angolan community on Facebook and Twitter with many asking, “how is this even news, again?” Portuguese media quickly picked up the story and more shares ensued.

This is highly embarrassing for the Angolan government, so concerned with its image abroad that it spends millions of dollars yearly in lobbies and PR firms in an attempt to clean up its image. All for naught, because when you Google Isabel Dos Santos’ name now, the Forbes story is second on the list right under her Wikipedia entry.

That Jornal de Angola and other government mouthpieces picked up the original story with such bravado further adds insult to injury. We are eagerly awaiting their reaction to the most recent piece.

What is also significant is the reaction from “Isabel’s People”. Numerous Angolan publications, such as Maka Angola, Folha 8, Semanário Angolense, to name a few, have published other versions of this very same story; none garnered so much of a flicker of interest from Isabel’s camp. But this is different; this is Forbes.

It seems that it doesn’t matter if Angolans know the truth – they’re insignificant. But if the outside world hears of it, through Forbes, well, it’s a different matter altogether.

Within 24 hours of the story’s release, Isabel, who was contacted numerous times by Forbes but refused to comment, issued a statement through a spokesperson denouncing the story. It also launched ad hominem attacks against Mr. Marques, stating that he “travels the world speaking ill of Angola and Angolans.” Not once did the statement seek to challenge the numerous, researched and documented allegations made in the article about the source of the ‘Princess’s’ wealth.

In the process, Isabel lost a golden opportunity to truly defend herself. Instead, the world got to know just how the Angolan regime works and just how it is possible for Africa’s richest woman to come from anonymity and become a billionaire in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

We’ve certainly noticed, however, the wider trend of the President Dos Santos’ children attempting to pass themselves off as hardworking people with difficulties just like everyone else. Earlier this year there was Isabel speaking with Tom Burgis for the Financial Times, attempting to explain her wealth; it’s here that she made the widely derided comment about selling eggs when she was 6 years old.

Then there was Coreon Du interrupting prime time television to complain that his company wasn’t getting paid for services rendered to State television, even though his company already receives $40 million directly from the state budget and even though less than a week after his national plea, he bought Portuguese magazine Lux for $10 million. Most recently there was Zenu dos Santos attempting to explain that it’s perfectly normal for a 35-year old with limited experience to be named Chairman of The Board of his country’s new $5 billion Sovereign Wealth Fund, after he was appointed by a decree signed by … his father.

Isabel may well be a shrewd, skilled businesswoman, but there’s no denying the simple fact that she’s a billionaire because of who her father is.

Implying otherwise is an insult to Angolans.

Further Reading