Democratic demands are rocking Southern Africa

Political debates in many parts of the world are currently being shaken by unexpected twists and turns. Representational democracy is being challenged in Western countries. New dictators are being elected with large majorities in countries with mixed democratic credentials. Impeachments are becoming acceptable developments in sophisticated societies such as Ukraine, Brazil, South Korea, Pakistan or Peru.

Winning elections no longer gives any guarantee of holding office for the prescribed duration of a mandate. Urban streets in many parts of the world are the scene of violent protests against recently elected officials; social media slowly replaces traditional forms of political mobilization; the polls’ authoritative influence is fast waning. The stability and resilience of democracy is the focus of intense intellectual debate.

Recent developments in Southern Africa demonstrate that the continent is embracing the same tendencies. Changes taking place in a considerable number of countries could make us think of a trend equivalent to when the independence of the last Portuguese colonies rolled over into a movement that accelerated the end of apartheid, reconfiguring the whole region. Are we at it again?

Perceptions can be deceptive.

In Angola there was a transition from President Eduardo dos Santos, who was in power for 37 years, to his anointed successor João Lourenço. Elections took place in August 2017, with the predictable outcome: a victory of the MPLA ( Popular Movement for Angola’s Liberation), in power since independence. Pundits had projected a minimal adjustment after elections, based on the very elaborate process of selecting the successor within the ruling party. The web of intertwined interests amongst the Angolan elite made any radical change impossible. Or so they thought.

In fact, President Lourenço has surprised everybody. His anti-corruption drive has been so extensive that in just a few months it has affected the direct interests of the previous President’s family and the majority of monopolistic private corporations in sectors such as construction, banking and retail. He has already replaced the leadership of the army, judiciary and major parastatals. Regulatory agencies in the areas of finance and oil have also been targeted.

In Zimbabwe the public display of a “military-assisted transition” of power in November gave the impression of a coup to remove President Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980. A wrangle with his Vice-President Emerson Mnangagwa who forced the latter into exile in South Africa, after being expelled from the ruling party leadership, became the prelude for the military action that shifted the chairs in less than ten days. President Mugabe, still baffled by the speed of the change, was almost impeached before finally accepting to cede power.

Yet, strangely enough, all the key figures who surrounded the ex-president resurfaced with similar roles under the new one, including Chief of Staff, spokesperson or Chief of Protocol. Mugabe was given an office in the same building as the new President, kept all his entitlements, including flying with the same private arrangements he used to enjoy, and a guarantee that his fortune and properties will remain untouched. To crown it all his birthday was even proclaimed a national holiday.

Which country had a coup? Which one got a smooth transition?

Maybe South Africa can provide the answer.

A stiff competition between two camps within the ruling ANC came to a peak (not an end… yet!) during the National Conference in late 2017, as delegates were expected to decide on the successor to President Jacob Zuma. The current Vice-President of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa, fierce challenger of the “state capture” beneficiaries (as the corrupt political actors benefitting from public resources are known in South Africa), won the hotly contested elections. This could have given him the edge in a confusing state-party dynamic. However, his victory is so slim, and the remaining organs of the party so evenly split between those supporting and opposing his ideas, that any change he proposes may face enormous resistance and will proceed incredibly slowly.

What we are witnessing in Southern Africa is a struggle between “rent-seeking behaviour” on the one hand, and the impatience of those eager to embrace fundamental structural transformation, on the other. We are also witnessing new forms of political compromise and contestation.

The 2017 instalment of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, the most comprehensive of its kind, confirms a worrisome trend: despite most countries having improved their governance indicators in the last ten years, more than half show that this progress is slow; they fail to capitalize in earlier successes and show signs of reversal or decline over the last five years. Southern Africa confirms such trends.

The fragility of institutions is often responsible for the fragility of democratic processes in Africa. South Africa has, so far at least, prevented a slide in the direction of Zimbabwe’s chaos thanks to the strength of some of its institutions. The fixation on personalities is a universal trend also present in the region. It reinforces the same point: when institutions are weak the leaders become disproportionately more significant.

In the region that produced the self-effacing and magnanimous Nelson Mandela, these latest developments offer lessons for moving forward. We may see elsewhere more “military-assisted transitions” that look like coups, but are probably not, or elections that appear uneventful but which produce remarkable surprises.

Dr Carlos Lopes was an Oxford Martin Visiting Fellow in 2017.

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First published by Pan African Visions