May 27, 2010 / 11:10 AM / 7 years ago

Outcry as Angola's market for the poor faces closure

LUANDA (Reuters Life!) - In the slums of Angola's capital Luanda lies one of Africa's biggest outdoor markets, Roque Santeiro, where poor Luanda residents can make a living or buy cheap food for their families.

Roque Santeiro is named after a hero who died protecting his city in a Brazilian soap opera that aired in the 1980s, just as the market in Luanda started to prosper during Angola's civil war.

Three decades later, hundreds of thousands of vendors wish Roque Santeiro would return to protect them from a government that plans to demolish their market and transfer them to a new site 18 km (11 miles) north of Luanda next month.

"If Roque dies, our business dies," said Olga da Conceicao, who has been selling used clothes for over 20 years. "The new market is too far for us to even afford to commute there every day. Our clients will disappear."

Every day, an estimated 200,000 people set up shop at Roque Santeiro to sell everything from toothpicks to cars. They say if you look hard enough you can find anything you want.

It is also the main market for ordinary Angolans as the capital has become one of world's most expensive cities due to the oil boom that followed the civil war, according to consulting firm ECA international.

"This is the only place poor Angolans can shop," said Joao Silva, looking through a pile of Chinese flip-flops. "This is a big market because there is demand from the poor for cheap products."

The size of the market is a reflection of the dramatic growth and poverty in Luanda, whose population has risen tenfold since 1974 -- the year the war began -- to over five million.

SLUM CONDITIONS

Many Angolans fled to the city during the war because it was protected by government troops against rebels from the main opposition UNITA, which waged a three-decade long bush war against the ruling MPLA.

The majority of those who arrived from the countryside ended up in crowded slums with no jobs, and Roque was the place to go to make a living. Today, Luanda is home to almost one third of Angola's 16.5 million people, most of whom live in precarious conditions around Roque Santeiro.

Authorities say vendors will have better working conditions at the new market in Panguila, but many critics believe the main goal is to sell Roque Santeiro's one-mile stretch of land overlooking the port of Luanda to real estate developers.

An increase in crime is also expected if Roque is demolished since many will end up jobless and forced to make a living on the streets, another vendor said.

"These vendors are the lifeblood of the informal economy," said Angela Diogo. "If they can't make money in the market, they will turn to crime instead."

Editing by Steve Addison

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