Isabel dos Santos, 46, the daughter of Angola’s long-running leader of 38 years, was mostly seen as untouchable in Luanda.
In fact, for most of her life, she represented both worlds.
She was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, during the Cold War era to a Russian mother and an Angolan father who would later become President.
She went to school in London, the centre of Western capitalism.
When she came back to Angola, her story goes, she begun from the grassroots, “sweeping the streets” of Luanda through her company, and later launched a popular restaurant known as Miami Beach.
She had made her money at 24.
But recently, the world has been treated to a trove of more than 715,000 documents showing a labyrinth of hundreds of companies around the world where money was reportedly laundered by Isabel.
Leaked documents showed how Ms dos Santos got access to lucrative land, oil, diamond and telecoms deals when her father, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, was president.
New York-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which published the ‘Luanda Leaks’ fingered Isabel, for looting her own country and using firms around the world to clean her money.
Suddenly, leading media houses in the West and around the world were starting to question whether Isabel dos Santos was worth $2.2 billion or whether she was in deed the 75th most influential woman in the world as claimed by Forbes magazine.
So how did the Angolans see it?
First, it wasn’t news. Rumours of looting by the former president’s family and his ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had been a subject of hushed discussions throughout dos Santos’ 38-year rule.
In 2008, local journalist Rafael Marques created a whistleblowing website Maka Angola, where volunteers helped build a strong narrative against the integrity of the dos Santos. Few outside Angola believed him.
“Inevitably, this is the end of one empire and the political end of one family that has caused harm to Angola and to its people due to their excessive greed,” Marques told the Nation in a phone interview, hopeful that the world could help pressure her into submission.
Some activists in Angola, muzzled during dos Santos reign just like journalists, said she did not “eat alone”, even though targeting her could create a better public perception for the government.
CORRUPTION IN ANGOLA
“Corruption in Angola is a general thing and involves the state circles and the MPLA circles,” Mr Carlos Rosado, an Angolan journalist who worked with ICIJ on the project, told Novo Jornal newspaper.
“I am not one of those who would think there is a selective persecution. We had to start from somewhere and I understand that it starts from Isabel dos Santos. That is the most reported case now but the judicial authorities have to expand the investigation scope to other sectors and personalities,” Rosado said.
Isabel was often unreachable and untouchable.
Hiding behind a father who was the head of state, she simply chose to sue for any perceived malicious reporting or use state organs to harass critics.
In the wake of the recent scandalising stories, however, she has been all over fighting back the accusations.
In an interview with the BBC, she claimed the trove of files were stolen papers to orchestrate “witch hunt” against her and her father.
In Angola, Isabel's assets include a 25 per cent stake in Unitel, one of the southern Africa state’s two mobile phone networks, and a 25 per cent stake in Banco Internacional de Credito (Banco BIC), 51 per cent in BFA and 99.9 per cent in Zap Media.
Last month, prosecutors froze her bank accounts and assets along with her husband’s (Sindika Dikolo) after a court ordered she repays the state some $75 million in dodged taxes.
She did not appear in court and the decision was made in her absentia.
But she fought back the move in the mainstream media and social media, describing the freezing as baseless political vendetta.
“This is an orchestrated and well-coordinated political attack, ahead of elections in Angola next year. It is an attempt to neutralise me and to discredit the legacy of President Dos Santos and his family," she argued.
"I am a private businesswoman who has spent 20 years building successful companies from the ground up, creating over 20,000 jobs and generating huge tax revenue for Angola. Last year my businesses paid over $100 million in tax.”
Her fall from grace began shortly after her father left the seat in 2017.
His successor, João Lourenço, sacked her as chair of the state-owned oil firm Sonangol in 2018.
Angolan Attorney- General Hélder Pitta Grós says she laundered money, forged documents and committed other economic crimes and maladministration during her stewardship of state-owned oil firm Sonangol.
Alexandre Neto, a political analyst in Luanda, told the Nation that the decisive move by authorities was an opportunity to launch a new governance system in Angola.
Her dealings in Portugal and elsewhere suggest the network for corruption was beyond Angola.
“Ms Isabel dos Santos revelations show that there is an international corruption web that goes beyond investigations in Angola”, Mr Domingos da Cruz, a lecturer at state-owned Agostinho Neto University and activist said after the documents showed she profited from Western auditing firms.
“It is not a surprise that western governments, and companies, participated in what is now being seen as corruption for Ms Isabel dos Santos, her family and friends, and members of the former government,” Mr da Cruz said.
Locally, Angola’s perennial corruption means anyone else in power could steal.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 released Thursday ranks Angola 146 out of 180 countries, just 19 positions better than it was in 2018.
In fact, the ruling MPLA is handling the matter cautiously. Its top officials refused to talk about it.
MPLA spokespeople refused to return calls by journalists.
And Mr Manuel da Cruz Neto, an MPLA legislator only said “I have no details about this and I don’t comment on media cases”.
Opposition MPs, however, say Luanda Leaks purge has to spread to other Angolan individuals who allegedly siphoned money from the state.
Mr Liberty Chiaka Angolan of the main opposition party Unita said there were local henchmen.
“It involves a lot of people. The corruption fight should not be done in a selective manner but broadly and this means employing deeper political changes,” he said, lamenting how details of fraud were published by foreigners rather than the local Attorney-General’s office.
Ahead of elections next year, Ms Dos Santos hinted she could run for President.
But she has been exiled since her father left the seat and the MPLA claimed only the party president becomes a presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, Ms Dos Santos has accused everyone publishing information from the leaked documents as either racist or part of a political witch-hunt to finish her.