Isabel Dos Santos
Isabel Dos Santos
Image: Supplied

Not so long ago, Isobel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former leader José Eduardo dos Santos, was Africa’s richest woman and the continent’s first female billionaire. Today, two years after her father’s death, with accusations of corruption swirling around her and a warrant of arrest from Interpol hanging over her head, she is an economic and political pariah.

She asserts (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) that it’s all a spectacular “witch-hunt”. To escape this, the 50-year-old has taken refuge in the glitzy “we don’t ask a lot of questions” capital of the world, Dubai. The situation is so dire over at the ultra-luxe Bulgari Resort where she’s living that Dos Santos has had to get used to wearing designer garb that is 10 years old. Couture from a different decade — oh, the injustice. Does Interpol have no humanity? This is one of the more gob-smacking statements of outrage conveyed in an interview with Dos Santos by veteran journalist Christina Lamb in the Times (of London).

Like the 168 readers who commented on her article, I was equal parts appalled and mesmerised. This prompted me to do some delving into the parallel universe in which Dos Santos resides. What I found has perplexed me deeply.

To sketch the scene, Dos Santos’s descent began in 2020, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the Luanda Leaks, which claimed that she and her late husband Sindika Dokolo had illicitly benefited from a wild array of business opportunities, sourced from the government, when her father was president. Investigations duly commenced, arrest warrants were issued and, as it stands today, she cannot enter the US while $733-million worth of her assets was frozen by a UK high court in December. Naturally, Dos Santos refutes all this and puts most of it down to the Angolan state having a “political agenda” against her. Now, she tells Lamb, she’s hard up for liquid cash and has lost 20kg, while her children are grinding out their days at school in London (they live in her South Kensington mansion).

This beleaguered widow is living the solo life in what she depicts as a diamond-encrusted, oil-fuelled Emirate cage. “I’m very bored,” she tells Lamb. And yet, the icy chill of her financial tundra hasn’t caused her to grey down her image — rather, she has, as the youth might say, “glowed up”. Dos Santos, in her Emirati purgatory, has morphed from a serious businesswoman in a sensible suit into a glamorous EMEA Instagram star with 560 000-plus followers and many, many more on TikTok. And, remarkably, given the tales of extraction and theft that led her to this point, admirers are flocking to Dos Santos’s posts, complete with smoky eyes, filters, and pouts amid well-placed poignant or “inspirational” captions. (Don’t bother looking for the one that says: “Anyone can become a billionaire if their daddy is president and he shunts business your way.”)

This media metamorphosis is a helluva thing, but the comments on her posts are even more staggering. “YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD MS SANTOS! I SEE GREATNESS IN YOU!!” shouts one fan. “Know one thing, Isobel dos Santos, no one will destroy your charisma and your talent,” swoons another. Her Instagram comments read like a tsunami of adoration. Given what led her to this point, you have to ask why so many people love Dos Santos. Is it that she symbolises a world they wish to be part of, no matter the tactics you need to employ to get there? After all, if the allegations are to be believed, Dos Santos made an incredible $2.2-billion fortune largely from state-run entities, in a country where 15.1-million people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than R36 a day.

Something is seriously broken with our critical faculties when our moral agnosticism to the path somebody takes to extreme wealth doesn’t seem to matter. Our obsession with power and glitz should never shoulder out our ability to assess what is acceptable, and whose backs you must stand on to get somewhere.

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