How the mighty have fallen—sort of.
The past few weeks in southern Africa have been astounding. Zimbabwe’s military dislodged Robert Mugabe, the country’s president since independence from Britain in 1980. Around the same time, the newish Angolan president, João Lourenço, sacked Isabel dos Santos, the billionaire kleptocrat daughter of his predecessor, from the state oil company on which the economy hinges. Both putsches would have been unthinkable just weeks ago.
That they went down so efficiently seems to speak to a new war on impunity. But don’t start talking about an African spring just yet. Public opposition played no role in eradicating the demons, and Mugabe’s exit was of questionable constitutionality. The degrading of once dominant figures does not change the political status quo, although we might see some changes in economic policies. Mugabe and dos Santos suffered jolts because they angered the political elite, which hailed from the liberation movements. The sense of entitlement of these erstwhile freedom fighters has over the decades pushed opposition to the fringes, whether by intimidation, vote rigging, or because citizens can’t imagine someone else in charge. Ministers and their families peddle their influence to control big business, if they don’t actually loot coffers themselves. Monopolization of power means rampant nepotism and few checks on abuses via the various institutions that might ordinarily prosecute wrongdoing.
It also spells longevity. The African National Congress (ANC) has governed uninterrupted since the end of apartheid in 1994. Namibia’s South West People’s Organization (SWAPO) has presided for 27 years. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has clocked up 37. The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) have each held onto the presidency for 42.
It’s doubtful that these cliques will suddenly embrace transparency that would end their influence or enrichment. The MPLA has a slogan: a luta continua, “the struggle continues.” It should be rephrased “the party continues.”
Take Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s party enabled his profligate ways and human-rights abuses until he did the unthinkable—fire the vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to allow succession by his wife, Grace Mugabe. A former typist 41 years younger than Mugabe’s 93 years, she played no part in the independence war, which infuriated the old veterans surrounding the president. So the military held the despot under house arrest and threatened impeachment until he finally stepped down. Mnangagwa was sworn in on Friday to take his place, promising greater openness to opponents and foreign investors who treated Mugabe as a pariah after he seized white-owned farms in 2000. But the new president’s résumé doesn’t inspire confidence. Known as “the Crocodile” for his ruthlessness, Mnangagwa was at Mugabe’s side during the most brutal moments of the regime. Mnangagwa headed the security apparatus during 1983 massacres of 20,000 political opponents. He ran the violent campaign of 2008 that made a mockery of free elections. He steadfastly stood by as Mugabe devastated the economy. Even if Mnangagwa suddenly sees the democracy light, the Mugabes are unlikely to face justice or part with their vast wealth, accumulated while the rest of the nation struggled on a per capita GDP of around $1,000. The former president has been granted immunity from prosecution, under the terms negotiated for his resignation.
As for Angola, until recently the supremacy of the dos Santos clan seemed airtight. During the 38-year reign of José Eduardo dos Santos, the patriarch amassed a reported $20 billion—equal to about one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. His offspring profited with stakes in banks and telecommunications. With a net worth of $3.5 billion, favored daughter Isabel became Africa’s richest woman, a nepotism resented by the crony class that arose after independence in 1975. The good ride ended when dos Santos named as his successor Lourenço, a general who has spent his career loyally serving the party. Since taking power in September, Lourenço has installed his own set of insiders to run the state oil company Sonangol as well as the diamond sector, central bank, media, and security services. Yet few influential figures are spotless in Angola, making it improbable Lourenço will break the self-enrichment that has marked the ruling party until now.
Elsewhere in the region, another dynasty may hit the dust, although not the party from which it springs. South Africa’s ANC is sullied by corruption involving President Jacob Zuma and other prominent politicians. Public disgust cost the ANC major cities in the most recent municipal elections. However, Zuma has survived calls for his removal, and he favors his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to become the head of the party, and by extension its candidate for president in 2019. Her ascendancy would be his best bet to avoid criminal charges once leaving office. The current front-runner for the position is Cyril Ramaphosa, who served as the ANC’s chief negotiator during the transition from apartheid. Since then, he has become one of the richest South Africans, with an estimated net worth of $450 million, and his name has come up in various scandals. But he is widely seen as more capable and honest than Zuma, and as a candidate would attract more popular support.
Next door in Mozambique, FRELIMO has survived by dirty tricks. Its modus operandi of election fraud and corruption ensure that party cronies control both politics and wealth. The economy is one of the better performers on the African continent, but more than half the population struggles under the poverty line. The main opposition, the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), has returned to arms in frustration over its sidelining. RENAMO wants more power in minerals-rich provinces, whose heads are appointed by the federal government. A resolution of such demands anytime soon remains a distant possibility.
The country with the cleanest record is Namibia. Yet the long-serving SWAPO has nonetheless managed to keep the opposition from gaining any real sway in the political, and by extension financial, space. According to Freedom House, corruption continues to be a problem and investigations into major cases proceed slowly. Enforcement of legislation is uneven, due to the influence of state-owned companies.
This one-party dominance in the five nations will probably continue for some time. In all of these countries, more than 40 percent of the population is under 25, and these young people have known only one party. Their biggest concerns are jobs. The plundering of state resources has left many in bad shape, and income disparities are broad between the haves and the rest. If Lourenço, Mnangagwa, and whoever succeeds Zuma can enact reforms to restore economic health, they will gain more legitimacy. So, too, an end to malfeasance by the governing class. But whether that is achievable is anyone’s guess. And for the time being, there are no viable opposition groups to replace them.