Jon Schubert
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Dreams of extractive development
Reviving the Benguela Railway in central Angola

Starting from a current photo of the Benguela Railway, this chapter tells the story of how the Angolan government, with oil-backed loans and construction expertise from China, sought to revitalise the colonial-era railway link from the Atlantic port of Lobito to the mining areas of Katanga and Zambia. This dream and its seeming failure in a context of economic crisis brought on by the 2014 commodity slump, reveals the limits to Angola's oil-fuelled reconstruction drive. At the same time it allows us to chart how the cyclical ups and downs of the global economy have impacted on Angola’s insertion into extractive capitalism, and how colonial-era ideals of professionalism and civilizedness reverberate in contemporary projects of self-making.

A shiny, new, red-and-yellow train of the Benguela Railway pulls into the sleepy station of Catumbela, a small town of largely defunct small industries on the Catumbela River, halfway along the 30 km-rail line between the port city of Lobito and the provincial capital of Benguela on the central Atlantic coast of Angola. The pastel colours of the station building echo colonial-era aesthetics, and two rusty steam engines on the station plaza allude to the railway's glorious past, but the building is brand new. Like the railway tracks, it has been built by a Chinese civil engineering company. A few people board the train, mainly high school and university students as well as some female ambulant traders; in the waiting hall, a handful of passengers are dozing under a Chinese-built display that lists the next departures and arrivals, including a long-distance train to Huambo in the central highlands. The train is running on time, but nothing much is happening. We have seen in the chapters by Szeman (Chapter 1), Lassiter (Chapter 2) and Kushinski (Chapter 3) how oil extraction infrastructures come to be entangled with forms of settler colonialism and settler aspirations for an ‘ordinary’ life. This chapter moves on to the question: What dreams of development motivated the construction, decay and rehabilitation of this railway line? What stories can the railway line and its passengers today tell us about the legacies of colonial extraction, independence struggles and their entanglements with oil booms and indebtedness?

Figure 11.1 The CFB train pulls into Catumbela station.

Lines on the rose-coloured map

The Portuguese colonial empire in Africa was always, despite its brutality and totalizing ambitions, a much more precarious affair than its proponents would have it. Until today, Angolans and Mozambicans will gleefully tell you, ‘our tragedy was that we were colonized by the Africa of Europe’, reproducing in one pithy sentence racialized hierarchies of civilizedness. When, after the 1884/85 Berlin conference, the European colonial powers had to demonstrate effective control of the territory they claimed, the Portuguese (much like the Belgians in neighbouring Congo) relied on commercial concessions to expand their reach and increase the profitability of the colony. Though the Portuguese, after British encroachment, had to give up their Berlin dream of a continuous territory from Angola on the Atlantic coast and along the Zambezi valley through to Mozambique on the Indian Ocean – the famous ‘rose-coloured map’ (mapa cor-de-rosa) – the plan to eventually create a coast-to-coast railway link remained a core ambition.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Scottish mining engineer Robert Williams – an associate of Cecil Rhodes – flew along the Central Atlantic coast of Angola to locate the best spot to build the end point for the planned Benguela Railway (Caminho de Ferro de Benguela, or CFB), to connect the mineral-rich heartlands of Katanga in the Belgian Congo (today the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC) and the (then Northern Rhodesian) Zambian Copperbelt with the Atlantic coast. He found the perfect place in the natural deep-water bay of Lobito, sheltered from the ocean by a natural sand-spit, some thirty kilometres north of the provincial capital, Benguela (itself a slave trading port since the 1600s). In 1902, the Portuguese granted Williams a ninety-nine-year concession to build and operate the railway. Construction on the port started in 1903, with quays gradually being expanded until the Second World War. The CFB itself, built in large part through forced labour, was a marvel of British engineering. 1 By 1929 a 1,544-kilometre rail link connected Lobito to the country's eastern border, and in 1931 the rail link to the Congo and Zambia was established.

From its earliest days, the CFB and connected port were geared towards the need of colonial extractive capitalism, to provide a reliable, fast and cost-effective way of transporting African raw minerals to the industrial heartlands of Europe. Angola's two other colonial-era railway lines replicate this logic: the Luanda Railway (CFM) links the capital, Luanda, on the Atlantic coast north of Benguela to Malanje and the diamond-producing Lunda-provinces; the Moçâmedes Railway (CFM) connects the fishing town of Namibe, on the southern coast, to the granite quarries and cattle-ranching highlands of Huíla. Neither the colonial power nor the current government, however, ever had much interest in creating a north–south connection between these three lines. Mozambique's rail network, on the eastern coast of Africa, presents a mirror image, with three coast-to-hinterland lines but no north–south connection between them. This pattern is also evident in other ex-colonies across Africa, -where all railway lines were built for export and lead down to the sea (Rodney 2018 [1972]: 251). As a corollary, the CFB drew communities situated along the line into new, respaced social and economic relations. Sisal, maize, wheat, bananas and coffee were moved down from the Angolan highlands (Vos 2018), while imported consumer goods moved in the opposite direction (including, after the Belgian Congo's independence, luxury cars for newly independent Zaïre's leader, Mobutu). Forests of eucalyptus trees were planted to provide fuel for the CFB's locomotives. And both port and railway attracted a considerable workforce – 44,000 staff for the CFB at independence.

Towards independence

Despite its claims of benign, multiracial harmony captured in the concept of lusotropicalism (see the introduction to Part IV, ‘Emergence’), Portuguese colonialism also relied on racialized social hierarchies, much like the neighbouring settler republics. These were entrenched in law during the Estado Novo, the corporatist (fascist) dictatorship of António Salazar, from 1933 on. Only very few Black Angolans reached the status of ‘assimilated’, which would in principle have accorded them the rights of citizens. Accordingly, the colonial state trained only a limited number of skilled ‘indigenous’ workers, though at the port and railway Angolans were apprenticed in great numbers into technical professions – electricians, locksmiths, stationmasters, mechanics and train drivers. As both companies in typical, paternalistic mode also provided housing and in-kind subsidies for their employees, as well as preferential access to employment for employees’ children, the CFB and port were effective motors for the gradual formation of a real working class – Angolans who did experience social mobility for themselves and their families through formal work. The CFB also served to promote a sense of shared identity, with migrant workers from the highlands moving down to the Benguela coast, spreading the use of the Ovimbundu language and of their respective Christian denominations to areas where they had not been dominant historically.

But while former CFB employees recall these as good times, and with great professional pride, their relative well-being was predicated on Portugal's continued hold on and economic exploitation of its colonies. While after the Second World War most African colonies started a process of (largely) negotiated independence, the Estado Novo regime doubled down by designating its African colonies as ‘overseas provinces’ and starting, belatedly, to develop the territories in order to bring the ‘benefits of colonialism’ to broader sections of their inhabitants.

Too little, too late – as the neighbouring French and Belgian Congos gained independence (in 1960), Angolan nationalists in different parts of the country in early 1961 took up arms against the colonizer. A fiercely fought liberation struggle and brutal Portuguese counter-insurgency war ensued (1961–74), which ended when left-leaning Portuguese military officers overthrew the dictatorship to put an end to the costly colonial wars. A period of transition to independence was negotiated in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. In Angola, however, there had been three competing liberation movements, and while the transition foresaw elections to constitute the first independent government of Angola, mistrust and rivalry, exacerbated by Cold War tensions, won the day. Immediately after independence (on 11 November 1975) Angola was plunged into a deadly civil war, which pitted against each other two of the three former liberation movements – the Marxist MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola) as the recognized government of Angola, and the ‘rebel’, nominally pro-Western UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). The oldest of the three movements, FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola), which had Western and Zairean support, was militarily defeated by the MPLA in 1975 and ended its armed struggle. As the MPLA managed to hold the capital at independence, and because UNITA received support from apartheid South Africa, the MPLA was quickly recognized as the government of Angola, while UNITA retreated into the bush, waging war from the hinterland against the cities. A peace agreement and multiparty elections in 1991–92 were derailed, and the civil war fiercely resumed, with some brief periods of lull, until the government's military victory in 2002.

The fortunes of the port and railway changed accordingly, as the combination of socialist planned economy and civil war soon led to a steep decline in agricultural production. UNITA regularly blew up the railway lines, although the CFB tried to uphold its service throughout, even if it meant that its train drivers were regularly killed or kidnapped while on duty. By 1989, the train was running only as far as Cubal, an inland municipality of Benguela, and rails, stations and rolling stock were in serious disrepair. The port of Lobito became the lifeline of the southern part of the country, where basic foodstuffs and military equipment were imported.

Oil money after conflict: an oil-fuelled reconstruction boom

It was only in 2002 that Angola's civil war ended, when government troops killed UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in battle in the remote province of Moxico. Weeks later, what remained of UNITA's military leadership signed a memorandum of understanding to end the war. The MPLA's military victory coincided with the onset of a new ‘commodity supercycle’, as oil prices, driven by new demand from Asian countries, reached new heights. With Angola now offering perspectives of stability and new technological advances in offshore drilling, oil majors redoubled their investments. For the better part of the following decade, Angola vied with Nigeria for the top spot of sub-Saharan Africa's largest oil producer. And with the price of a barrel of crude oil at between US$70 and US$110, the MPLA government was flush with oil money, and thus able to rebuild the country after the conflict very much on its own terms (Schubert 2017), without any of the usual donor conditionalities that other countries faced in similar situations. 2

Much of that reconstruction effort went into prestige projects like gleaming new skyscrapers and a revamped waterfront for the capital, Luanda, or football stadiums and roller hockey pavilions of dubious usefulness for the population. But the government also invested in kilometres of new roads. And at the heart of its ambitious infrastructure plans stood the rehabilitation of the Lobito corridor: the modernization and upgrading of the port of Lobito, and the restoration of the rail link to the DRC and Zambia.

This work was largely funded through oil-backed credit lines from China, and carried out from 2006 to 2014 by Chinese civil engineering companies, at an estimated cost of US$2 billion. China's investment in Angola is inscribed in China's larger reinvestment into partnerships with African countries as part of its global strategic expansion. China's renewed international engagement has often been viewed with scepticism bordering on hysteria by Western media and policy makers as proof of China's hegemonic global ambitions and, in the case of Africa, as a purely resource-driven new ‘scramble for Africa’.

The Chinese presence in Africa

There are a number of issues with this picture. First, China's engagement with Africa predates the commodity boom of the 2000s, as the People's Republic of China offered military training to African independence movements and concrete development assistance in the 1960s and 1970s – with the TAZARA (Tanzania–Zambia) Railway as one of the most famous examples. China's more recent turn to Africa successfully built on this longer history, speaking a language of equitable partnership and respect that often stands in marked contrast to many African societies’ experiences with European former colonial powers. Second, while there has indeed been a growing visibility of Chinese presence in Africa in the past two decades, we should be careful to ascribe this to one monolithic ‘China’ as a supposedly unitary actor. In fact, a multitude of actors are active across the African continent, ranging from official government and Communist Party contacts to state-owned and state-affiliated companies, to private enterprise ranging from petty trade to heavy industries, to precarious menial workers, especially in the agriculture and construction sectors. Third, the language of ‘new colonialism’ obscures African agency in these exchanges (again at all levels) – especially in the case of Angola, members of the ruling party elite have been particularly adroit at mobilizing Chinese economic interest and investment for their own personal gains (Power and Alves 2012).

Rehabilitation of the CFB was officially completed in 2014, and the line now runs to Luau in Moxico province, on the border with the DRC. But while the rehabilitated line has proven a boon for commuters between Lobito and Benguela, and for female small-scale traders, especially in the east of the country where road links were almost nonexistent, the Angolan government's ambitious schemes to revive large-scale mineral exports through the port of Lobito have not yet materialized. On the one hand, as former railway workers told me during fieldwork in 2018 and 2019, the rehabilitation was poorly planned and executed, from a lack of spares for the new Chinese and US locomotives to the design of the line: according to them, the Chinese built the curves too tight and the railway beds too high, and the new concrete sleepers cannot absorb the vibrations in the rails as well as did the old wooden crossbeams, leading to frequent derailments and speed limitations. On the other hand, the DRC has not modernized its rail line yet. The state of the rails and the rolling stock in the DRC is so poor that the new, heavy-duty, wide-gauge locomotives that Angola acquired cannot reach the Katangan manganese mines. And so, the few little mineral cargos that have been exported so far have been transported by container rather than in bulk. This cargo has to be transloaded from the Congolese trains to the Angolan trains at the border train station, and is then exported in Lobito through the container terminal rather than the brand-new minerals terminal.

Legacies of colonial extraction

The promise offered by the Benguela Railway is tangled up with the legacies of colonial administration. More generally, the limitations of the Benguela Railway point to the failings of an idea of development based on colonial models of extractive capitalism: the economic rationale for the line has always been that the distance from Katanga and the Copperbelt to Lobito is about two-thirds shorter than the current export route, via road cargo, to Durban (on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast). This made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, when most minerals were still sent to Portugal, which sold them on to the heavy-industry centres of West Germany and Sweden. Yet, nowadays, most mineral exports are destined for Asia, imported by China, Korea, Japan, India and Vietnam. So, even if the route to Lobito might be shorter than the route to Durban, the shorter sea travel to the minerals’ end destination from Durban more than offsets potential savings from the shorter rail route on the Lobito Corridor.

Beyond such practical considerations, the development model pursued in dreams of the CFB's past glories does nothing to diversify Angola's economy (nor that of the DRC and Zambia, for that matter) away from the extraction of raw minerals and hydrocarbons, and reproduces Africa's dependency on global markets as a primary commodity exporter (Khisa 2019). Just wishing agro-industries and small businesses along the Corridor into existence will do little to tap the rail link's full potential, or transform the livelihoods of populations largely excluded from national development schemes. Following a downturn in world oil prices in late 2014, and having financed the reconstruction of the CFB with oil-backed loans from China, Angola has effectively mortgaged its future oil revenues for debt repayment. China holds 70% of Angola's foreign debt, and debt servicing made up more than 56% of total government expenditure for 2020, resulting in cuts to social spending and economically orthodox austerity measures that hit the poorer parts of the population hardest.

Predicating Africa's ‘rise’ on intensifying resource extraction undermines any potential for sustainable, less ecologically and socially exploitative economic activity. It will instead only intensify local, regional and global asymmetries, and entrench existing inequalities. Sure, the commuting students boarding the train at Catumbela are grateful for the cheap and safe transport the train provides; so are vegetable growers and petty traders from the east, who are now able to sell their produce in Huambo and Benguela markets (Duarte 2013). The dreams of diversified national economic development that underpinned and justified the reconstruction of the line, however, seem further off than ever.

Further resources

Grobler, J. (2014) ‘Chinese infrastructure lubricates outflow of Angolan and DRC resources’. Pambazuka News, 10 April.

King Cobra and the Dragon (2012) Directed by Solange Guo Chatelard and Scott Corben. [Documentary Series] Al Jazeera. (accessed 2 September 2022).

Marchal, J. (2017) Lord Leverhulme's Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo, trans. M. Thom. Reprint edition. London: Verso.

Niang, A. (2019) ‘The colonial origins of extractivism in Africa’. Al Jazeera, 17 August. (accessed 2 September 2022).

Park, Y. G. (2016) ‘One million Chinese in Africa’. SAIS Perspectives. 12 May. (accessed 2 September 2022).

Schubert, J. (2020) ‘Colonial resonances: Extractive capitalism in urban design in Lobito, Angola’. Roadsides 004 Architecture and/as Infrastructure. (accessed 2 September 2022).

Works cited

Duarte, A. (2013) ‘The ambivalent character of reconstruction: Winners and losers of the Lobito transport development corridor’. Journal of US-China Public Administration 10(9): 914–926.

Khisa, M. (2019) ‘Whose Africa is rising?Review of African Political Economy 46(160): 304–316.

Power, M. and Alves, A. (2012) China and Angola: A Marriage of Convenience? Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford: Pambazuka Press.

Rodney, W. (2018) How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. 2nd edn. London and Brooklyn NY: Verso.

Schubert, J. (2017) Working the System: A Political Ethnography of the New Angola. Ithaca NY and London: Cornell University Press.

Vos, J. (2018) ‘Coffee, cash, and consumption: Rethinking commodity production in the Global South’. Radical History Review 131 (May): 183–188.


1 For further discussions of the entanglements between British colonialism, forced labour and working-class formation, see Styve (Chapter 21).
2 See also the discussions of debt and discipline, donor conditionalities and their entanglement with migrant lives and racialized, postcolonial borders in chapters by Medien (Chapter 7), Dickson et al. (Chapter 8) and Rossipal (Chapter 9).
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