Menu Close

Populism on the rise as South Africa and Namibia gear up to elect new presidents

President Jacob Zuma, left, gets a courtesy visit from President of Namibia Hage Geingob in 2015 in Cape Town. GCIS

Both South Africa and Namibia’s governing parties are set to hold elective congresses before the end of this year. Those who win the leadership contests will each lead their respective parties into a general election in 2019 as their presidential candidate. How this happens will be crucial for both countries’ political futures.

There are interesting similarities and differences between the two cases. As in many other countries, both states have a strong executive Head of State. There are term limits for the president of the country, if not for the president of the party. Both countries have constitutions that provide for a democratic governance structure, guided by the rule of law.

But in both cases the state presidency has so far been decided by the parties in power. Both governing parties came to power after armed liberation struggles in which a culture of secrecy and suspicion was widespread. Both had to negotiate a regulated transition from a minority regime to a legitimately elected government.

In both, returned exiles played key roles once their parties were voted into government. The African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) had to adapt to a liberal democratic order that included transparency and accountability as part of civic demands and expectations. In both cases the constitutions provided for strong executive presidents with far-reaching influence and power, along with the rule of law and multi-partyism.

But the two countries have adjusted in different ways. SWAPO has entrenched its political dominance in all spheres of society since independence. The ANC is in decline and faces massive public protest and political opposition. In both cases the state presidents have resorted to populism to pursue their agendas.

How South Africa and Namibia compare

South Africa is a complex multi-layered class society with a long history of political and ideological contestation. It has a strong and multi-faceted civil society.

The ANC’s political dominance has weakened. It got only 54% of the vote in the 2016 local government election. There is speculation that it may not even get 50% in the 2019 general election.

Under President Jacob Zuma, the ANC has been plunged into a crisis of legitimacy. The party so far has not showed loyalty towards the principles of the Freedom Charter, its pre-liberation blueprint for a free and democratic South Africa. Instead it has been seen to support state capture by a governing clique. While the ANC fails, a still vibrant civil society is doing what it can to keep Zuma in check.

Namibia, on the other hand, with a total population of less than a twentieth of South Africa’s, has very different social, political and class structures and a much weaker civil society. The old slogan from the struggle days, that SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO still has resonance.

SWAPO has been in government since March 1990. It has steadily consolidated its political power, securing 80% of votes in the national parliamentary elections of 2014. Its directly elected president, Hage Geingob received an astonishing 87%. Given the party’s overwhelming dominance its presidential candidate will, as a matter of formality, become Head of State for the next five years, with no meaningful opposition in Parliament.

In South Africa, though the Head of State is elected by Parliament, he or she is nominated by the largest party.

In both cases the former liberation movements select the country’s next president. There is also a two-term limit for the president of the country, if not for the president of the party.

Succession politics

Towards the end of the year, some 400 SWAPO delegates will attend the party’s conference to decide leadership positions and so elect the presidential candidate. Until then a lot of campaigning and even more speculation about party-internal rivalling factions can be expected.

Geingob is in his first term in office. He is, in contrast to Zuma, eligible to be re-elected as Head of State provided he is confirmed as party president. His predecessor as Head of State and party president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, in a hitherto unprecedented move resigned as party president when Geingob assumed office as Head of State. Party vice president Geingob then also became party president.

The SWAPO constitution makes no provision for such a transfer, so it’s a matter of controversy whether Geingob is – as his team claims – the official party president or the acting president. Though no other candidates have yet publicly declared their intention to compete for the party presidency this year (and by implication nomination as presidential candidate for the country in 2019), there is no doubt th at internal power struggles exist.

As Geingob qualifies for a second term as Head of State, he may be elected unopposed and unanimously as party leader, unless internal factions put up another candidate. He has recently shown increased eagerness to ensure that his relative comparative advantage as office holder is consolidated. To further anchor a loyal network he has enlarged Parliament and his cabinet and appointed special advisers.

The upper echelons of SWAPO are still largely dominated by first and second generation struggle stalwarts who returned from exile just prior to independence. There is growing resentment about this among a much younger generation of activists.

In South Africa, the ANC will elect new leaders at its national conference in December. The official ANC line is that campaigning for the party presidency has not begun. But Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and others have already started their campaigns to succeed the scandal-ridden and now widely discredited Zuma.

Zuma has a strong personal interest in ensuring that his successor is loyal to him and will keep him out of jail if the charges against him – including fraud, racketeering and corruption – are reinstated. He has now come out in support of his former wife, Dlamini-Zuma.

Slide into populism

Both Zuma and Geingob have recently adopted a more populist rhetoric in response to pressures within their parties and in the face of declining economies. Growth has come to a virtual standstill in both South Africa and Namibia.

In the wake of this, Zuma has called for radical economic transformation. Along with others loyal to him, he has said that the constitution should be changed to allow for land to be taken without compensation, in the interests of land reform.

Similarly, under pressure within SWAPO, Geingob has paid tribute to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and said that Namibia should learn from how Zimbabwe dealt with the land issue. A land conference will be held in September, the second since independence.

By year’s end, the decisions taken at both parties’ congresses will indicate which policies associated with the election of the future presidents, both at party and state level, will shape the next few years. In both cases, the challenges are big and the stakes are high.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 182,400 academics and researchers from 4,942 institutions.

Register now