Is the wind of change blowing across southern Africa?

On Wednesday February 14 2018, South Africans awoke to the news that there had been a dawn raid on the Saxonwold compound – derisorily referred to as the “Saxonwold Shebeen” – owned by the Gupta family, close friends of President Jacob Zuma. It was the clearest sign yet that the president’s powers had faltered and his time was drawing to a rapid close. Having lost the succession battle at the ANC’s elective congress in December 2017, speculation had been brewing that he would soon be removed by the ruling party. With most of his friends and allies having shifted positions to the new sheriff in town – newly-elected ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa – Zuma’s days in the presidential residence seemed to be numbered. 

On February 13, after more than a week of negotiations between Zuma and Ramaphosa, the ANC national executive committee formally requested that Zuma resign the presidency – in an apparent repeat of Zuma’s 2008 removal of former president Thabo Mbeki – and they gave him until midnight on February 14 to do so. In a late-night address, Zuma resigned on Valentine’s day. Ramaphosa was sworn in less than 20 hours later.

On South Africa’s northern border, events in Zimbabwe have also heralded spectacular changes. Following the November “soft coup” that removed Robert Mugabe from power after 37 years at the helm, new President Emmerson Mnangagwa has spent three months on a major marketing drive, trying to convince the region and the world at large that he is setting Zimbabwe on a new course. The UK has been eager to re-engage, with several high-profile visits to Harare, and moves suggesting that the country will soon re-join the Commonwealth.

But having been burnt before by promises and intransigence on the part of the ruling party, all eyes are on the general elections to be held later this year. The full normalisation of relations with Harare is largely contingent on the holding of a ‘fair’ and peaceful election. 

The same day that Jacob Zuma was facing down a recall by his party, 65-year old Zimbabwean opposition veteran Morgan Tsvangirai passed away in a Johannesburg hospital. Despite his two-year battle with colon cancer, Tsvangirai had been tipped as the presidential candidate for the opposition’s seven-party coalition, due to fight the upcoming elections in less than six months’ time. The week prior to his death was marred by a very public succession battle between the MDC-T’s three vice presidents – something that will no doubt hurt the party and the coalition’s electoral prospects. 


The Zimbabwean opposition’s prospects look dire – Tsvangirai’s unmatched public profile and failure to pick a successor has left the coalition rudderless, while changes instituted by Mnangagwa have taken the bite out of the opposition’s “change” mantra. It’s unclear whether the fractious opposition can regroup, rebrand, paper over their squabbles and develop a positive messaging platform in the months before the looming polls.

READ MORE: After celebrating Tsvangirai’s legacy, Zim opposition must deal with his mistakes

Meanwhile, change is also afoot in the rest of the region. 

Botswanan President Ian Khama announced that he will be handing over power in April 2018. Khama, the son of Botswana’s independence President Seretse Khama, is stepping down after ten years at the helm. When he steps down, the Vice President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, will automatically succeed him until the 2019 general elections. 

But Masisi won’t necessarily be the ruling party’s candidate for those elections as the party will go to a special elective congress in 2019 where several high profile government leaders have thrown their hat in the ring to succeed him

In Angola – Southern Africa’s largest oil producing nation – President José Eduardo dos Santos handed over power in 2017 after 38 years at the head of the country’s ruling MPLA, after anointing his favoured successor João Lourenço. When Lourenço won the August elections, few predicted that he would follow through on his promises to clean up the MPLA and the state.

READ MORE: Lessons in parenting from a retiring Angolan dictator

However, in a shock move, he removed the former president’s daughter – Isabel dos Santos – from her position at the head of the state-owned oil producer Sonangol (which had made her the richest woman on the continent). Lourenço also removed the heads of police and intelligence, governor of the Central Bank, head of the country’s diamond company and the boards of all three state-owned media companies, as well as dos Santos’ son who was head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

Caution required

However, despite all the apparently positive changes across the region and some significant reasons for optimism, there is a need to maintain a cautious stance. 

In Angola, many remain sceptical of Lourenço’s moves, arguing that it resembles a “dança das cadeiras” – a ‘dance of chairs’ or little more than a reshuffling of the political deck. 

Whispers in Gabarone suggest that Ian Khama is hoping to position his brother, Tshekedi Khama, to take up the presidency. Having tried to anoint his brother in 2014 (after making him a Cabinet minister in 2012), but facing outright revolt from the ruling party, Khama backtracked. But he has one more chance to secure the dynasty in the ruling party’s special congress next year. If he is successful, three of five of independent Botswana’s presidents would be from the Khama family. 

In Zimbabwe, following the possible collapse of meaningful opposition in the wake of Tsvangirai’s death, Mnangagwa may feel little pressure to make substantial changes to the state, and will instead continue along the well-worn path that ZANU-PF has tread for nearly four decades.

As for Ramaphosa, he is riding high on a wave of public optimism and international goodwill, but he will need to prove that he is serious about rooting out corruption in the state by removing Zuma’s key backers through whom public finances were so wantonly squandered and misappropriated. But over the longer term, questions remain over whether Ramaphosa’s business – and market-friendly approach will be sufficiently flexible to make the necessary policy changes to tackle the country’s burgeoning inequality and mass joblessness.

With the possibility of a Congolese election (or mass uprising in the absence of an election) at the end of 2018, what is certain is that the Southern African region will look very different at the end of 2018 to how it looked just more than a year before. But it remains to be seen whether these changes will be thoroughgoing, or if it will be little more than a dança das cadeiras.

Nicole Beardsworth is a South African political analyst at the University of Warwick.

This article was first published on the Presidential Power blog.

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Nicole Beardsworth
Nicole Beardsworth holds a PhD in politics from the University of Warwick, an MA in International Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand and an MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford.

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