Democracy is looking sickly across southern Africa

A woman votes in Zambia. Beyond multi-party systems and regular elections, many countries resemble very little of true democracies. GovernmentZA/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Politics are in shambles across the world. Populism and political gambles are making headlines from London to Washington. Southern Africa is no exception. If it’s any comfort, this suggests that there’s nothing genuinely typical about African versions of political populism. Nor are the flaws in democracy typically African.

This might put some events into wider perspective. But it’s nonetheless worrying to follow the current political turmoil in some southern Africa countries.

The regional hegemon, South Africa, is embroiled in domestic policy tensions of unprecedented proportions since it became a democracy. And the situation in the sub-region is not much better.

The state of opposition politics and democracy is in a shambles too. The fragile political climate and the mentality of most opposition politicians hardly offer meaningful alternatives. This is possibly an explanation – but no excuse – for the undemocratic practices permeating almost every one of the region’s democracies.

Beyond multi-party systems with regular elections, they resemble very little of true democracies.

South African hiccups

At the end of May the dimensions of “state capture” in South Africa were set out in a report published by an academic team.

It shows how deeply the personalised systematic plundering of state assets is entrenched. Additional explosive evidence was presented only days later through thousands of leaked e-mails. Dubbed the “Gupta Leaks”, they document a mafia-like network among Zuma-loyalists and the Indian Gupta family.

The evidence points to massive influence, if not control, over political appointments, the hijacking of higher public administration and embezzlement of enormous proportions.

Some 65% of South Africans want Zuma to resign. An all-time low approval rating of 20% makes him less popular among the electorate than even US President Donald Trump. Despite this – combined with growing demands from within the party that he steps down – the ANC still backs its president.

But divisions within the party are deepening, with some in its leadership demanding an investigation into the Gupta patronage network.

For his part, Zuma is focused on pulling strings to secure Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor as president of the party. The other front-runner candidate is Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Zuma’s assumption appears to be that, once in office, his former wife would not endorse any legal prosecution of the father of her children.

But the country’s official opposition party, Democratic Alliance (DA), isn’t reaping the benefits of the ANC’s blunders. It has its own problems, which are constraining the gains it might otherwise be making from the ANC’s mess.

The party is divided over what to do about its former leader and Premier of the Western Cape province, Helen Zille following a tweet in which she defended the legacy of colonialism. The comment whipped up a storm of protest and for weeks the party had been at pains on how to deal with the scandal.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane finally announced that Zille had been suspended from the party and that a disciplinary hearing would decide what further political consequences she might face. But a resilient Zille immediately challenged the decision.

Whatever the outcome, the DA’s image is damaged. Its aspirations to be the country’s new majority party has been dealt a major blow.

Regional woes

In Angola, 74-year-old Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in office since 1979, has decided to select a successor. The scenario will secure that the family “oiligarchy” will remain in control of politics and the country’s economy, while the governing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) uses the state apparatus to ruthlessly suppress any meaningful social protests.

In contrast Robert Mugabe – reigning in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 - shows no intention of retiring. He was nominated again as the Zimbabwe African Nation Union/Patriotic Front’s (ZANU/PF) candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. But everyone is anxiously following the party’s internal power struggles over the ailing autocrat’s replacement. Fears are that the vacuum created by his departure might create a worse situation.

While the regime’s constant violation of human rights is – as in Angola – geared towards preventing any form of meaningful opposition, there are concerns that the unresolved succession might add another violent dimension to local politics.

Zambia’s democracy also looks sad. The country’s main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) is on trial for high treason. Hichilema has been embroiled in a personal feud with President Edgar Lungu of the governing Patriotic Front (PF) for years. He was arrested in early April after obstructing the president’s motor cavalcade. The charge of high treason is based on the accusation that he wilfully put President Lungu’s life in danger.

The trial is feeding growing concerns over an increasingly autocratic regime. The once praised democracy, which allowed for several relatively peaceful transfers of political power since the turn of the century, is now in decline.

Lesotho is also in a mess. It provides a timely reminder that competing parties seeking to obtain political control over governments are by no means a guarantee for better governance. Aptly described as a “Groundhog Day election”, citizens in the crisis-ridden country went to the polls for the third time since 2012 with no new alternatives or options.

Their limited choice is between two former prime ministers aged 77 (Tom Thabane) and 72 (Pakalitha Mosisili). The likely election result is another fragile coalition government – provided the military accepts the result.

Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for relative political stability in the region might still be in the making: President Joseph Kabila, whose second term in office in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) ended in December 2016, is still hanging on with the promise that he’ll vacate the post by end of this year.

Despite a constitutional two-term limit, his plans remain a matter of speculation. In a recent interview, he was characteristically evasive. He refused to give a straight answer on whether he’s still considering another term and flatly denied that he had promised anything, including elections.

Kabila’s extended stay in office threatens to exacerbate an already explosive and violent situation, with potentially devastating consequences.

His continued reign would not only provoke further bloodshed at home. Any spill-over will challenge the Southern African Development Community’s willingness and ability to find solutions to regional conflicts in the interests of relative stability. A stability which is at best fragile and indicative of the crisis of policy in most of the regional body’s member states.