Winds of change blowing across Africa

Published by The ipaper (19th February, 2018)

Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma share some things in common. Both were key figures in the anti-apartheid struggle with the African National Congress. Both spent years in prison on Robben Island. And both ended up president of South Africa. Yet could there be greater contrast in their styles of departure from office. One was garlanded in accolades, his global reputation fuelled by dignity and heartfelt desire to unify a troubled nation. The other had to be prised from the presidency last week, his sticky fingers forcibly removed from state coffers and corrupt allies on the run.

‘I have done nothing wrong’ declared Zuma in a defiant interview hours before succumbing to pressure from his party, which intensified after Cyril Ramaphosa won the leadership in December. The charge sheet is long but can be summed up in two words: state capture. One insider told me last week how his faction placed supporters in key ministries, driving out technocrats who might question plunder of assets. Now the deposed president may face corruption charges while a judicial inquiry examines if his close friends and family partners influenced government deals.

The ousting of Zuma shows that despite efforts to seize institutions and stifle dissent, South Africa is a robust democracy. Yet he has proved himself a survivor in the past and still has allies in senior positions. Few thought Zuma could bounce back from a court case in which he was cleared of raping the daughter of a family friend, telling the court he showered afterwards to avoid catching HiV, let alone evade the stench of corruption sticking to him from a huge arms deal. Yet three years after that rape case, he was president.

Costly taxpayer funded upgrades to his private home serve as fitting symbols for his frightful regime. Yet such is his charisma – backed up by more than a hint of menace – I met several people over the past three weeks in the country who retain respect for their ousted leader. One musician friend said he held Zuma in high regard for altering Thabo Mbeki’s Aids policies since rolling out anti-antiretroviral drugs had saved a relative’s life. ‘Politicians are all on the make,’ he smiled.

Ramaphosa faces big challenges. Can the socialist trade union leader who became a rich businessman salvage the ANC’s stained reputation before elections next year while starting to sort out a struggling economy, improve schools, stem corruption and tackle issues such as inequality and land reform? South Africa has seen the emergence of a wealthy post-apartheid black elite, but poverty and unemployment remain endemic in a nation that is arguably the most influential on the continent.

Yet the day after Zuma quit another departing leader in another key African nation felt potentially more important. Hailemariam Desalegn’s decision to stand down in fast-growing Ethiopia commanded far less media attention. Yet it comes amid a political crisis that a rigid one-party state is struggling to contain after three years of bloodstained anti-government protests. The prime minister, a former academic who has looked weak since taking power in 2012, waffled about his resignation being ‘part of the solution’ on the path to ‘sustainable peace and governance.’ But the next day his regime re-imposed a state of emergency.

The moves reflect uncertainty over dissent that left hundreds dead and thousands detained. The state’s usual tactics of arrest, beatings, torture and killing backed by abuse of anti-terror laws are failing to stifle demands for reform. The government is dominated by Tigrayans, who comprise a tiny slice of the 105m Ethiopians while the unrest emerged in Oromia and Amhara, which make up almost two-thirds of the population. Some prominent politicians and journalists were freed from jail earlier this year. Now protests are banned and the media being threatened again.

The situation feels reminiscent of the Arab Spring. Young people, often well-educated and irked by ethnic politics, have been pushed by injustice and brutality onto the streets. There is a sense of despondency, a desire for dignity and a belief the only way to achieve change is to risk lives and liberty. These frustrations could prove explosive in a nation that is both a donor darling of the West and a favoured ally in China’s invasion of Africa.

Winds of change are blowing in key parts of Africa. Look also at Angola, where the hand-picked successor to a 38-year president has been systematically picking out his predecessor’s obscenely-rich family and friends from state machinery. Yet is this really a revolution in an oil-rich nation scarred by terrible poverty, for all the plaudits on social media, or just a switch of snouts in the trough?

The same question goes for Zimbabwe after a military coup toppled Robert Mugabe to install Emmerson Mnangagwa. There was vicious irony in the new president’s praise of Morgan Tsvangirai over the weekend, hailing the dead opposition icon for his fight ‘to entrench democratic values in this country.’ Fair enough: he was a brave and heroic figure. Yet it was this same former minister and spymaster, now leader of his country, who stopped Tsvangirai from taking power a decade ago by persuading Mugabe not to quit after an election defeat then unleashing savage violence on rivals and ballot-rigging.

Angola, Ethiopia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are four very different nations, each with their own politics and problems. Yet they are all crucial players in the future of the coming continent, one the West still sees through such tired old prisms. The changes are fuelled by shared concerns: the desire for democracy, fairness, human rights, jobs and equitable distribution of resources. Each offers flickers of hope. But their outcomes are all hazy.

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