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The next revolutionary movement is sweeping across Southern Africa

By Patrick Smith in Johannesburg and Harare
Posted on Friday, 16 February 2018 11:27

Like a series of political detonations across the region, the liberation-movement regimes of Southern Africa are changing their leaders, their credos and their identities. Afflicted by crashing economies and sharpening clashes between the elites and grassroots, as well as between generations, these regimes are dealing with the crises by dropping their malevolent pilots.

Three key states in the region – Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe – start 2018 with bold plans for national renewal, to refloat their economies and change relations between the rulers and the ruled. They pose a conundrum: can a liberation party reform itself without surrendering power? Mozambique, whose ruling party blocked a bid by Armando Guebuza for a third term, has been fighting a losing battle over reform for a couple of years.

The scourge these countries face is summed up by the South African term ‘state capture’. It was coined as an explanation of how a group of companies controlled by the Gupta brothers, Ajay, Atul and Rajesh, was able – in league with multinational entities, such as consultants McKinsey, auditors KPMG and IT specialists SAP – to win privileged access to state contracts through political ties.

On 16 January, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority announced it was seeking to recover some R50bn ($4bn) from the Guptas and their international partners. Two years ago, Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe announced his country had lost more than $12bn in diamond revenue.

These are the tip of a steep and jagged iceberg that has gouged billions from budgets for health, education and housing. The wilful destruction of state institutions, such as the South African Revenue Service, and the undermining of judicial and investigative agencies have immediate political and social consequences.

With remarkable resilience, independent spirits in these organisations and in wider society have been fighting back. Figures such as Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s former public protector, and Rafael Marques, Angola’s foremost investigative journalist, have taken on their countries’ ruling classes in the face of the direst personal threats. Opposition politicians in Zimbabwe earned the unhappy distinction of being one of the most persecuted – physically, psychologically and economically – dissident movements in the world.

That these campaigners and activists now sense a moment of change, even revolution, is hugely significant. The last great inflection point for Southern Africa was Nelson Mandela’s swearing-in as his country’s first democratically elected president in May 1994. “Let freedom reign” was his celebrated call to the continent.

Moral force

Under the tutelage of Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC)-led government, South Africa built a world-class set of institutions – to run the country, but, above all, to overcome the searing inequities and injustices of apartheid and colonialism. From the liberation of Africa’s most modern economy should have flowed a new era of freedom and development.

For several years, free South Africa’s moral force resounded across the continent, with Madiba calling out dictators, such as Nigeria’s Sani Abacha, as well as Western double standards. Meanwhile, deputy president Thabo Mbeki worked with his peers to build a network of pan-African institutions to promote economic and political integration as well as accountability. South Africa’s new ethos, grounded in its own painstakingly negotiated transition out of racial dictatorship, found relevance in polities as diverse as Northern Ireland and Palestine.

That the new leader of the ANC (see page 32), Cyril Ramaphosa, led negotiations for his country’s transition and the writing of its progressive constitution offers a hopeful sign. Confidants of Ramaphosa insist he was never reconciled to a business career, despite the millions of dollars it brought him. “Not for a moment did he stop following the political news,” a colleague said. “On one level, I think he found business and companies rather boring.”

Ramaphosa’s next move will be ­anything but boring. As new president of the ANC, he must lead efforts to remake the party and government, knitting together its rival factions. That push for unity has to be balanced against the need to confront the corrupt networks that have taken over party structures.

To do that, Ramaphosa will be buoyed by a wave of collective goodwill, un­equalled since Madiba’s ascendancy. For the new presidents of Angola and Zimbabwe, Lourenço and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the footing is less sure.

Lourenço took over the presidency from José Eduardo dos Santos with almost monumentally low expectations. “His greatest achievement would be not being Dos Santos,” mused an Angolan official. Since then ‘JLo’ or ‘the Terminator’ (see page 24) has confounded those modest hopes. His anti­graft campaign has won credibility as he moves to free the economy from the grip of Dos Santos’s patronage networks.

Unclear for now is how much structural change Lourenço plans. Angola is decidedly a freer place these days but the executive presidency remains all-powerful, particularly as it enjoys the unquestioning support of a purged security system. Lourenço’s allies say much more change is coming, initially aimed mainly at economic efficiency.

Fixing the economy and opening it to business are also the mantras of Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF Mark II. One of Zimbabwe’s richest men and a leading shareholder in the country’s second-biggest bank, Mnangagwa can be said to ‘get business’. Critics say he gets it too much.

Historically close to Beijing, where he and General Constantino Chiwenga met prior to launching the military action to oust Mugabe last November, Mnangagwa is gambling on winning enough Asian backing, along with cash from grudging Western governments, to lift the economy before national elections this year.

Brought up under the economic nationalism of Rhodesian governments and with military training in China, Chiwenga and Mnangagwa have political instincts that suggest an awkward but authoritarian marriage of ideas. Mnangagwa has been big on promising jobs and attracting foreign investment but has much less to say about political rights and free elections. Talk of reconciliation after the violence used by ZANU-PF against dissidents, let alone atonement or recompense, is off the official agenda.

This is where both Angola and Zimbabwe could benefit from the Ramaphosa effect and its hoped-for boost to civil society and campaigners against state capture. The synchronicity of political change in all three countries will spill across national boundaries. If the ANC’s reformers can consolidate, 2018 could prove to be the year when South Africa resumed its role as regional, if not continental locomotive.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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