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In February, Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, offered to begin a peace process with the Taliban as legitimate political actors. Ghani’s proposal for negotiations included a ceasefire, the release of Taliban prisoners, new elections with Taliban candidates, the reintegration of Taliban fighters and a constitutional review. The Taliban are yet to respond, indicating what many analysts perceive to be a serious internal debate regarding next steps. Ghani’s offer of political engagement signals a marked departure from dominant Afghan government narratives labelling the Taliban as drug traffickers or terrorists. Given that previous internationally led attempts at negotiations have stumbled over international security-related preconditions such as terrorism or foreign troop withdrawal, this move also shows unprecedented Afghan ownership of the peace process and prioritisation of the domestic political agenda.

The shift in the treatment of the Taliban from international criminals to domestic political actors coincides with a concerted Taliban strategy over the last five years to increase their legitimacy through improved governance of their territories. It reflects a small but growing consensus that successful peace-building rests on state acknowledgment of the Taliban’s role in the governance of Afghan society, particularly in rural areas where the state is largely absent or viewed as corrupt and ineffective. The Taliban have emerged as potential conduits between Kabul elites and some areas of rural Afghanistan.

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Coming into its own in 2012, the revolution in Rojava (northern Syria) has been ideologically guided by women’s liberation, ecological harmony and a form of anti-capitalist radical democracy. It has provided fertile ground for a profoundly different education system from the models previously imposed in the region. Across the globe in Brazil, following the 2013 mass protests and uprisings, waves of students occupied their schools and universities starting in 2015 in the ‘student spring’. Although these contexts are not strictly similar to one another, they both open space to imagine possible political and educational pathways.

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In the six months from August 2017 to February this year, three southern African countries underwent dramatic changes of president. Dramatic in Angola and Zimbabwe because José Eduardo dos Santos and Robert Mugabe had been in office for 38 and 37 years respectively. Dramatic in South Africa because in less than nine years, Jacob Zuma had given the country’s robust constitutional democracy a run for its money that it neither expected nor deserved. The faces that these three countries present to the world are very different. What I am interested in here is the histories and the institutional arrangements they have in common, and also what the distinctive processes surrounding the three presidential transitions can tell us about the particular configurations of power within each country.

Let’s start with the commonalities. All have seen an end to white rule within the lifetimes of older citizens, including the presidents themselves. All continue to be ruled by the same party that took power after a protracted and violent liberation struggle, the memory of which continues to be deployed against potential rivals (these recent changes were within parties, not between parties). In all three countries, power is centralised in an executive president who is constitutionally head of both state and government, and who in normal circumstances is also leader of the ruling party. In Angola and South Africa, though not in Zimbabwe, a proportional representation party list electoral system ensures that the legislature remains beholden to the ruling party leadership.

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