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.