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.
The military underwrites political power in Angola and Zimbabwe. In Angola, this is the legacy of a 27-year civil war in which generals were kept on side with state largesse. In Zimbabwe, senior generals have portrayed themselves as the guardians of an anti-colonial struggle to which the ZANU-PF party is the sole heir. In South Africa, by contrast, the compromise struck in the early 1990s between the militarised apartheid state and an armed liberation movement gave birth to a democracy in which the military stays out of politics.
Turning now to the three transitions. In Angola, Dos Santos’s retirement was delayed by the lack of a suitable successor: someone who could be relied upon to guard the Dos Santos family business interests that had been woven into the fabric of the state, but who also had the confidence of the army and the MPLA party. As his failing health threatened to force the issue, in the absence of someone who ticked all the boxes, Dos Santos anointed as his successor João Lourenço, a former general and party secretary general. One of Dos Santos’s last executive actions was to sign a decree entrenching his appointees in the security services. Dos Santos himself would remain head of the MPLA. Yet expectations that he would use his position as party boss to keep a rein on Lourenço were quickly confounded. Within months of coming to power, Lourenço had got rid of Dos Santos appointees in positions of power, including the former president’s daughter Isabel and son José Filomeno.
In Zimbabwe, a 93-year-old Mugabe seemed destined to die in office, the question of succession deadlocked by a rivalry between the military brass of the liberation struggle, and a younger generation within ZANU-PF whose cause had been taken up by Mugabe’s wife, Grace, 52. What precipitated the crisis was Mugabe’s sacking of his vice-president, the war veteran Emmerson Mnangagwa, clearing the way for Grace to succeed to the presidency. A week later, the head of the armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, put troops on the streets and placed Mugabe under house arrest. It was a coup in all but name, and the African Union’s policy of shunning coup leaders necessitated a fig leaf. ZANU-PF branches around the country held emergency meetings in which they voted for Mugabe’s removal as party leader. As parliament prepared to discuss impeachment, Mugabe finally resigned and Mnangagwa was sworn in as president.
Celebrations in Harare following the removal of Robert Mugabe, November 2017. Image: Nanorsuaq via Wikimedia Commons
South Africa’s ANC has long been a forum for internal contestation in a way that would be unthinkable in many other post-liberation ruling parties. Cross-cutting cleavages within the party have been on the lines of class, ethnicity, and a lingering unease between those who were in exile during apartheid, and those who opposed the white regime from inside South Africa. Zuma owed his ascendancy in the party to his ability to deliver the rural vote from the fractious KwaZulu-Natal province, and consolidated his base with a populist rhetoric aimed at those who felt left behind during Thabo Mbeki's presidency. After Zuma took charge of the ANC, the party exercised its constitutional prerogative to oust the sitting president, replacing Mbeki with a placeholder president, Kgalema Motlanthe, until Zuma won the 2009 national elections as the ANC candidate.
Zuma’s eight-year presidency was marked by mounting evidence of corruption and cronyism. In municipal elections in 2016, anger at Zuma among the urban working and middle classes saw the ANC lose control of most of South Africa’s main city councils. Meanwhile, Cyril Ramaphosa, a trade union leader turned tycoon who had been outmanoeuvred by Mbeki to succeed Nelson Mandela in 1999, saw the opportunity for a comeback. In a process that echoed Zuma’s ousting of Mbeki, Ramaphosa gathered the support of ANC branches ahead of the 2017 party conference, where he was elected party leader.
The key institutional players in each of these three transitions have been the executive, the party and the military. In South Africa, where the military has no independent political role, it was the party that prevailed over the executive. This has a lot to do with a deference towards the party leadership which is not only part of the internal culture of the ANC, but is also, thanks to the ANC’s input into the constitution-making process, hard-wired into a constitution that effectively makes the elected party sovereign.
In Angola, by contrast, the executive was everything. Dos Santos had steadily engineered the centralisation of power from the 1990s onward, a strategy that worked against him as soon as he surrendered control of the centre. Despite predictions that Dos Santos would use his influence in the party and the security forces to tie his successor’s hands, as soon as Lourenço was in power the party, long frustrated at Dos Santos's cronyism, fell into line behind the new president's purge of state institutions – helped, it must be noted, by the fact that he already enjoyed the trust of the army.
In Zimbabwe, the army was the protagonist in the change of power. The party was ready for a change, but did not have enough of a political life of its own to allow it to take the initiative until the men in uniform made the first move. The incumbent president, after a few days of bluster, realised he had no further recourse.
In each of these similar-but-different transitions in southern Africa, it was the dominance of a particular institution that dictated events: a dominance determined partly by the constitution, but also by less formal historically contingent practices. Only in South Africa could the party initiate and guide the process. Yet in all three cases, the outcome was the ditching of a leader who had become a liability to the party, outsmarting the opposition and, most likely, shoring up tottering party support before the next elections.
My thoughts in this article owe a lot to Sara Rich Dorman’s running commentary on events in Zimbabwe last year, and to conversations with Nic Cheeseman, Tinashe Nyamunda and Miles Tendi.