Southern Africa has been hit by a political earthquake. Three powerful rulers did not feel it coming: Jacob Zuma, Eduardo dos Santos and Robert Mugabe. Suddenly they are gone. The first two were removed by constitutional procedures. In South Africa Jacob Zuma failed to renew his presidency and has been booted out. He may now face corruption charges dating back to the 1990s. In Angola President Eduardo dos Santos is being side lined after 38 years in power. The third, Mugabe, was removed by an internal soft coup in which no one died and (nearly) everyone rejoiced. Constitutions of most of Africa’s nation states are now finally functioning at the highest level.
The last time there was a continent-wide shake up the trigger was external; the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1989. Western countries worried about the Cape trade route to the East becoming controlled by Russia and its East European satellites who supported Marxist Leninist parties in Africa such as Angola and Ethiopia. African governments found the language of Marxism fitted their anti-colonialist posture. At the end of the Cold War European and American stopped worrying about pro Soviet countries and free market capitalism. Multi-party elections became the new global doctrine. African dictatorships – and not just ones that had been backed by Russia – tumbled one after the other.
In South Africa the prize was the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC). It’s immediate act was to transform itself from a Marxist Leninist party into a liberal democratic party and the creation of the most human rights orientated constitution the world has ever known. I notice that ANC members still refer to each other as “comrade”, though with a touch of irony these days.
Today, following the failure of Jacob Zuma to get his wife elected to succeed him and protect him from the courts, South Africa is also undergoing another profound change. Zuma out manoeuvred Thabo Mbeki, his predecessor, but the ANC’s former spymaster was himself check-mated by the party. It will be interesting to see if he gets a Go To Jail card.
In much of the rest of Africa ethnicity still trumps class when there is an election in the rest of Africa. But in South Africa a man who comes from a very small ethnic group has come to power. President Cyril Ramaphosa is a businessman technocrat who I believe can unite the country, turn around South Africa’s economy and create jobs.
In Zimbabwe, Mugabe has been removed from office and dispatched to a care home but still seems to think he is still the president. Zimbabwe is harder to read because Emerson Munangagwa, the man who fronted the military coup against Robert Mugabe last November, has been his amanuensis from the start, carrying out many of the destructive and at times murderous policies that have ruined the country. I suspect that Munangagwa, having won the prize he so desperately wanted all his life, will not go quietly. The mechanism for reconciliation after the end of apartheid in South Africa was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It will be difficult for Munangagwa to implement such restorative justice since he was complicit in everything Mugabe has done. Can he afford to hold a free and fair election? Can he prevent it? Nothing less should be accepted.
The biggest surprise has occurred in the least known country, Angola. Here the closed, Soviet-styled party has been the ruling party since independence from Portugal in 1975. The question for this very wealthy elite is: where has all the oil and diamond money gone? Angola is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources. OiI, diamonds and every mineral and tropical hardwood, are in abundance. It has thousands of square miles of rich farmland. But the country is owned and ruled by a tiny, fabulously wealthy, poorly educated elite, rivalling Nigerian levels of personal wealth.
How did they get there? Angola’s history is very different from the rest of Africa. From the 16th to the 20th Centuries, the Portuguese colonised and raped the country, exporting millions of African slaves to South America and Cuba. But, unlike the French and British colonisers, the Portuguese settlers married into African families. Over more than 400 years a mixed race, urban class of Portuguese traders grew up in Angola, retaining their Portuguese names, language and customs. The Portuguese slave trade only died out at the beginning of the 20th Century.
After the Second World War Portuguese peasants were encouraged to move to Angola and given land and jobs. The indigenous, Portuguese speaking, mixed race class were pushed aside and they turned to the only countries that would help them, the Soviet Union and Cuba. They formed a Marxist Leninist political party, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the MPLA. They rapidly changed from slave trading entrepreneurs to self-styled representatives of the oppressed working class.
In the 1960s with Russian backing the MPLA launched a guerrilla war against Portuguese rule. In 1976 a military coup in Portugal overthrew the dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano because they were fed up with fighting wars in Africa. The army promptly declared independence for all the Portuguese colonies. Angola’s three liberation movements then turned on each other but the MPLA, with Cuban support and Soviet weapons, defeated the other two and declared Angola a Marxist one party state.
The Russians appointed Agostinho Netoas president and, when he died of cancer in 1979, they put in his place Eduardo dos Santos, a Russian trained engineer. A shy, formal, distant man, he was a poor public speaker. In interviews I had with him, dos Santos came across as someone who had his slogans and speeches written for him. Compared to his larger than life, US backed rival, Jonas Savimbi, he did not look like a leader.
But while the mixed race Angolans enjoyed a comfortable urban lifestyle, “black” Africans felt marginalised, second class citizens. In 1977 they rose up and thousands of them were massacred. That gave rise to the rebel movement National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi which was backed by the US because of its anti-communist credentials. At one stage it controlled huge swathes of the country. Interestingly one of its slogans was “negritude” – a swipe at the urban mixed race tribe.
Under a peace deal brokered by the Americans, an election was held. It was won by the MPLA. Dos Santos remained president and accumulated immense wealth. So did his daughter, Isobel. She amassed a fortune and became a billionaire, commonly known as “Africa’s richest woman”. British educated and the queen of the state-owned oil and diamond companies, she was strongly tipped to succeed her father. Instead the party decided to use the official structures to select a new leader. After 37 years in power Dos Santos did not seem to aware that his support base was unravelling. Isobel was not elected and she and her family’s wealth are now being investigated. Angola’s future is looking uncertain again.
On the other side of the continent in another Portuguese-speaking country, Mozambique, the opposition movement the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) was once known primarily for its terrorism and incoherent political aims. It was supported and supplied by Apartheid South Africa and relied purely on terror to gain power. I visited the site of a massacre by RENAMO at Homoine in 1987, the streets still strewn with the bodies of men women and children, some shot, some hacked to death. It is hard to accept that this movement is now the main opposition in Mozambique and seems to be gaining political traction simply because the government does so little for distant rural communities. There is a lot to fight for in Mozambique with the discovery of oil off the coast.
There are also rumblings in Namibia where President Hage Geingob is under pressure from colleagues who have bigger ethnic constituencies. Meanwhile, in Botswana, another smooth transition from one president to the next has taken place, an unbroken chain since independence in 1956. Whatever they drink in Botswana their formula is a relatively flat society, which frowns upon people who push themselves forward, a harsh environment where you had to be smart, collaborative, with a high level of debate and trust. Their first President Seretse Khama was hard working, a listener, and a trusted leader. What other country managed to harbour Zimbabwean and South African freedom fighters, without becoming caught up in their war? Perhaps a little Botswana medicine should be used in the politics of the rest of southern Africa.