A thick mist descends on London as I make my way to Mayfair to meet Africa’s richest woman. It seems apt. Isabel dos Santos’s name is more widely known since, earlier this month, Forbes declared her the continent’s first female billionaire but, in her native Angola, she belongs to an elite that is so secretive it has been described as a “cryptocracy”. Her father, José Eduardo, has been Angola’s president for 33 years. Renowned for his inscrutability, he keeps his petro-state, the continent’s rising power and one of China’s biggest oil suppliers, in the tightest of grips. His regime has, according to critics, become synonymous with the diversion of public funds into private pockets.
Isabel dos Santos, his eldest daughter, is regarded as a symbol of the confluence of power and wealth in Angola. I have been pursuing her for an interview for more than a year and, despite repeated assurances from aides that she doesn’t do them, she has consented to have lunch during a business trip to Britain. Her choice of venue is Scott’s, a swanky fish restaurant frequented by hedge fund types and luminaries such as Bill Clinton and Tom Cruise.
I arrive 10 minutes early but recognise dos Santos sweeping through the doors ahead of me. We shake hands and she launches into hushed conversation, in Portuguese, with her publicist as I fidget nearby. Eventually, the publicist is dispatched and we are shown to our seats beneath a vast, bewildering canvas by Fiona Rae. Dos Santos is wearing a black trouser-suit over a leopard-print shirt and sporting dazzling earrings set with diamonds. The precious stones abound in Angola’s soil. They helped fund the rebel campaign against President dos Santos during the on-off civil war that erupted when the country gained independence from Portugal in 1975.
We sip mineral water and scan the menu. Dos Santos, 39, seems both confident and ill-at-ease, adjusting and readjusting her cutlery. A resident of the capital Luanda, where five-star hotels are interspersed with slums along the Atlantic coast, she knows her seafood. Like many of the city’s wealthier residents, she enjoys an evening on the Ilha, a sliver of land stacked with exclusive bars that looks out on to the ocean.
Were she there, she says, she would have grouper. Here, she opts for sole meunière on the bone, with mashed potatoes and steamed spinach. Keen to concentrate on the details of my guest’s business dealings, my main concern is to order something that does not require a full set of surgical tools to consume. So I avoid the razor clams and go for halibut fillet with crab puntalette and monk’s beard. I try to coax her into a glass of wine. “Let’s do the bottle,” she says with a grin. I order Chablis and ask whether her parents were really introduced to one another by the KGB.
“I doubt that,” she chuckles, flashing me a disarming smile and offering the first of many deflections.
She was born in 1973 in Baku, where her mother, a Russian chess champion, met her father while both were studying engineering. Azerbaijan was then a Soviet outpost that welcomed promising young cadres from communist-aligned African liberation movements such as Angola’s Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, of which dos Santos’s father was a member. “It took them seven years to get married, to get the authorisations. I don’t think it was the KGB, otherwise they would have got the papers quicker.”
Nonetheless, her father was destined to be a key Soviet client in the proxy conflicts of the cold war. In 1979 Angola’s founding president Agostinho Neto died. Dos Santos, who had returned to Angola to join the armed struggle before independence, took over. He has held power ever since.
The conflict ended in 2002 and communism has long since given way to what one Angola expert calls “crony capitalism”.Those with connections to the Futungo, as the presidential coterie is known (after Futungo de Belas, the old presidential palace) have made fortunes. But UN data suggest Angola is failing to turn rising gross domestic product (growth averaged 11 per cent between 2003 and 2011) into improved living standards, even as the fortunes of the elite swell.
Even some critics acknowledge Isabel dos Santos’s independent prowess as a businesswoman. Her interests include stakes in two Portuguese banks, BIC and BPI, and a communications group called ZON Multimédia and an indirect holding in Galp, a Portuguese energy group with assets from Mozambique to Venezuela. But, for angry, poor Angolans she epitomises a system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of the few. They call her “the princess”, and not with affection.
Unsurprisingly, that is not how dos Santos sees her life, which she rarely misses an opportunity to describe as ordinary. She drives herself around Luanda, braving the interminable traffic jams like everyone else. We exchange the knowing sighs of people who have watched hours of their lives ebb away in African gridlock. When I posit that oil-dependent rentier states have the worst traffic problems, she asks me why I think that is. I offer the theory that embezzled petrodollars buy a lot of 4x4s, relieving pressure on the authorities to fix the roads but leaving the potholes to multiply.
She spins a cheerier explanation. “In Luanda,” she says, “I remember when there were 300,000 cars, and then there were 600,000 cars, and then there were a million cars, and now I think there’s two million cars in the city. That was really linked to the growth of the consumer market. It just grew much faster than the infrastructure could accompany it.”
Her vision of a growing middle class chimes with the narrative advanced by those who say Africa is rising. But plenty contend that the old model – authoritarian ruling classes growing fat off oil and minerals, leaving the rest in a deindustrialised shadow economy – has scarcely changed.
Our fish has arrived. Dos Santos ignores her mash and greens and sets about her sole systematically, as befits the engineer daughter of engineer parents (she gained a degree at King’s College London). “My father cooks,” she reveals, stressing again her down-to-earth origins. “He likes fish. We never got a sense of the grandiose. I walked to school.”
When her parents separated, however, she followed her mother to Europe, studying at St Paul’s, a private school in London. Later, at King’s, she shared a room in a hall of residence by Edgware Road. Not for the last time, she hints at a life dominated by hard work. “You have about 23 hours of classes per week, plus the labs, plus doing the reports, so you’re not going to be partying.”
Perhaps those hours in the lab were spent searching for an antidote to perceptions of nepotism. “I think there’s lots of people with family connections but who are actually nowhere. If you’re hard-working and determined, you will make it and that’s the bottom line. I don’t believe in an easy way through.”
There are, however, easy ways to make money if you’re connected in Angola, particularly in the resources industries, where top officials and generals have been known to take hidden stakes in ventures led by oil majors and to enjoy titles to diamond-bearing land. There are those who would say that corrupt models lie at the heart of the power structures that keep most Africans poor and unable to call their rulers to account. Isn’t it true, I ask, that Angolan politics and business are thoroughly interwoven?
“Yes,” she concedes, the oil industry is “politically driven”. But she insists that she steers well clear of it. In her sectors, “politics don’t come into it”, she says, even if her own big moment came when she was part of a consortium that won a public tender for Angola’s second mobile telephony licence in the late 1990s.
Earlier that decade she had returned to Angola at a moment of false hope. A truce and elections in 1992 seemed to offer an end to conflict. But Jonas Savimbi, leader of the Unita rebels, walked away from the polls, alleging foul play. Another decade of brutality followed.
“That was a very bad time,” dos Santos recalls. She moved back in with her father, got a job with a German recycling company, then, with the proceeds from selling her car, set up a trucking business. Here the development of a walkie-talkie system paved the way for her subsequent foray into telecoms. Researching the pitch for the mobile licences took her into rebel-held territories. Didn’t her father object to this? “He didn’t know.” Did she recuse herself from the tender process, on account of her family connections? A flicker of annoyance comes over her otherwise chipper demeanour. The tender process that led to the formation of the Unitel mobile phone network was, she says “fair”. She made “a conscious choice ... to create that arms-length relationship [between herself and government] that is so difficult to see but, in fact, exists”. Twice, I ask whether one of her co-investors in Unitel is General Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento, a Futungo insider with whom she is said to have business links. She sidesteps the question both times.
Later I email to check other connections I have heard about. These are flatly denied. As she tells me over lunch with a raised eyebrow: “Most rumours you’ve heard are not true.”
Perhaps she doesn’t see herself as a member of the all-powerful Futungo at all? “I’m not involved in politics and I’ve never had any political role. I’ve never been in office. I’ve never taken any public administrative jobs. So, like I said, I don’t work with the government.” Instead, she sees herself as a force for relieving inequality. “How do you get the inequality lower? Well, by creating opportunities and creating more and more development. You wake up in the morning and work, do something. It will take a lot of time but the more things happen, the more things are built.”
I am running out of halibut and she of sole but I persist in my efforts to establish some hard facts about the structure of one of Africa’s most intriguing business empires, a portfolio that now extends well beyond the borders of her homeland. Dos Santos’s banking interests drew her into partnership with Portugal’s richest man, Américo Amorim, whose energy venture Amorim Energia she joined. I ask her to clarify how those energy interests tie in with Sonangol, the Angolan state-owned oil company with assets from Iraq to Brazil that some critics perceive as a Futungo fiefdom. She fends off my questions before fixing me with the look one might give a particularly vexing eight-year-old. “The business is relatively complex because, when you structure a business, you have to look at different aspects from legislation to taxation, to governance, issues like that.”
Though Forbes has placed her fortune at $2bn, Dos Santos is, unlike the Saudi prince who went ballistic when the magazine valued him at $20bn rather than the $29.6bn he says he deserved, at pains to play down her wealth. She says all her transactions are leveraged, mention of which is used to stress her relationships with commercial banks in Europe, Asia and Africa. I am about to test out another juicy tale about her influence when a waiter pops up to ask whether we would like dessert. Dos Santos orders fresh mint tea and a spoon to try whatever I’ll choose. The waiter suggests a Yorkshire rhubarb cheesecake designed “to share”. He departs and I try again: does she, as I was told the day before our lunch, call up the governor of the central bank and tell him what to do?
“In which country?” she quips. We laugh merrily (the wine bottle has been drained by now). I nudge again: you do have this reputation for extraordinary power.
“Well, it’s very difficult, I would imagine, to distinguish father and daughter. And maybe some of it comes as I’m doing my thing and my father being a very strong political African figure for so many years. Whatever he does is almost like some kind of cloud on top,” she says, reaching for the right metaphor and waving a hand over her head, as though her father were some celestial phenomenon. “So maybe some of these ideas come from this cloud-over effect from his position. But, no, I don’t call the central bank and I most certainly don’t give them instructions.”
I switch to ideological concerns. Is there an irony in the daughter of a communist cold warrior emerging as a poster girl of African capitalism?
“I see what you mean but, like I said, I don’t do politics. I do business and I’m not a politician. I’ve had business sense since I was very young. I sold chicken eggs when I was six.” The profits funded her candy floss habit, though her sweet tooth has evidently diminished over the years: she has only a morsel of the enormous rhubarb confection that arrives. I suggest we could wrap the cake up for the three small children she has had with her husband Sindika Dokolo, a Congolese businessman and art collector.
She explains they are not with her as this trip is for work. “I work all the time. Seven days a week.” I detect a hint of melancholy. Her parents were “very demanding”, she says, driving her academically. She doesn’t seem particularly close to her siblings from her father’s other marriages – one of whom, José Filomeno dos Santos, is tipped as an heir to Angola’s presidency – but she insists her work is “fun”. “If you do something that’s going to get somebody a job, then they’ll be able to pay for their kid’s school, and then their kid is going to be a doctor and then that doctor is going to probably help who knows how many other people, so it’s very motivating. Much more fun than going to the beach.”
She suddenly asks the time. It is nearly four. She is meeting some consultants about a new supermarket project. A few rapid pleasantries and she has vanished. I ask for the bill and head off too, into mist that has lifted only slightly.
Tom Burgis is a FT reporter and former correspondent in Africa
20 Mount Street, London W1
Halibut fillet £30.00
Sole meunière £39.00
Steamed spinach £5.50
Mashed potato £4.25
Rhubarb cheesecake £18.50
Mint tea £3.75
Bottle of still water £4.75
Bottle of Chablis 2010 Chaude Ecuelle £48.00
Cover charge x2 £4.00
Total (incl service) £177.47