Southern Africa Watch

Democracy under threat in Southern Africa – part one

Grace and Robert Mugabe

To a greater or lesser extent democracy is under threat in all the states of Southern Africa, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe. This is the first of two articles on the subject.

It is difficult to disagree with the conclusion of a contributor to African Arguments, a website that promotes”... a vigorous debate on the issues that impact Africa” that, “Some say that it is ‘African’ to remain in power for a lifetime. It would be more correct to say that this era is gone.”

There was a time, not long ago, when it was accepted practise for African leaders to declare themselves president-for-life and openly and unashamedly rig elections to stay in power.

Credit must go to former President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia who at a time when it was almost unheard off, broke ranks to accept defeat in the 1991 multi-party elections and give up power after nearly 30 years as Zambian president.

By doing so Kaunda changed this perception that it “is African” to cling to power for life and set a new trend that the rest of Africa soon followed.

There are however always exceptions, with President Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Angola’s President dos Santos, President Museveni of Uganda and Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe the more prominent examples.

The first two are already 34 years in power while Museveni has notched up 28 years and Mugabe 27 years. All four are known for their autocratic and despotic style of government and a disregard for democracy.

Worrying development

A worrying development is the attempts by a growing number of currently serving African heads of state to amend their country’s constitutions to lift the restrictions on serving only two terms.

South Africa had a similar experience when former president Thabo Mbeki tried but failed in his attempt to serve for a third term.

Rumours have it that Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore and Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza are seeking constitutional changes in order to stay in power while Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has also refused to rule out running for a third term when his mandate expires in 2017.


In the Southern Africa region it is said that President Joseph Kabila is considering a similar constitutional change in the DRC while Zimbabwe’s 90-year-old President Robert Mugabe is allegedly concocting a plan to leave as his legacy the “Mugabe dynasty.”

The DRC government and Kabila’s supporters are denying that he is seeking a third term. His opponents disagree, citing evidence to the contrary and have already organised public protests calling on Kabila to respect the constitution and step down when his second elected term ends in 2016.

The protests have led to clashes with the police in Kinshasa and the eastern city of Goma, thousands of kilometres from the capital which indicates widespread national hostility to Kabila’s presumed plans.

It is alleged that Kabila’s recent reshuffling of his top military command shows his determination to put loyalists in key positions as he prepares the ground for a potentially volatile period.

Suffering for more than three decades under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko until toppled by an internal insurrection, led by the current president’s father, Laurent Kabila in 1997, these concerns are understandable.

The current DRC regime is already labelled the “Kabila dynasty.” Joseph Kabila took over from his father after his assassination in 2001 and has been in charge of one of Africa’s most damaged and violent countries for 13 years. In the 2011 elections Kabila was re-elected amidst accusations of widespread irregularities.

With accusations of maladministration, corruption, nepotism and self-enrichment rife, with South African links, it is claimed that Joseph Kabila might be fearful that the same fate that befell many former African leaders when they lost power, might also happen to him.

Whether it is fear of ending up in court to stand trial for wrongs under his presidency or whether it is the uncertainty of what life has in store after his presidency ends, (Kabila is only 43), any plans of tinkering with the constitution to improve his chances to stay in power, are causing tension and uncertainty in one of Africa’s most troublesome nations.


In Zimbabwe a similar situation is in progress. President Mugabe has ruled since independence the 1980s. During this time his leadership style changed from conciliatory and accommodating to that of an autocrat and despot. For many Zimbabweans their country is already a failed state as result of his maladministration.

Mugabe seems to be unmoved. Against the backdrop of his advanced age it is said that he has plans to leave behind a “Mugabe dynasty” with his 49-old wife and former secretary, Grace Mugabe, destined to receive the keys to the president’s office. In turn she will hand it over to Mugabe’s son, Robert (jnr.) Mugabe.

A past master in divide and rule, Mugabe purposefully never groomed a successor which has led to an open contest between possible candidates.

For the last couple of years a fierce contest has been raging between Vice-president Joyce Mujuru and the Minister of Defence, Emmerson Manangagwa.
Now, according to analysts, in a calculated move, Grace Mugabe has entered the race.

Zimbabwe’s first lady has no political influence or experience except for being President Robert Mugabe’s wife but his absolute power and control of the ruling ZANU-PF party permits Mugabe to interfere, almost at will, to have his way.

In no time Grace Mugabe was elevated into the inner circle of the ruling party. In August 2014 she was unexpectedly endorsed, in a clearly orchestrated move to the powerful position of being the next chairperson of ZANU-PF’s Women's League.

Simultaneously Zimbabwe’s state media began to devout time to singing her praises, highlighting her devotion to charity work – despite her lavish and extravagant lifestyle.

Then, to add some prestige to her CV, the notoriously bad student with an even worse academic record, was awarded in a highly controversial and somewhat comical way, a doctorate in sociology, by the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) – only two months after enrolling for her doctorate studies.

Despite mounting pressure that the UZ should publish her thesis, curiously absent from the university’s online archives, and reveal her registration details and the names of her supervisors, the institution has remained tight-lipped.

Unsurprising Robert Mugabe is chancellor of the UZ and, as if by coincidence, another contender to replace him, Joyce Mujuru, at the same time also received a doctorate from the same university! But, his thesis is available on the UZ’s website.

Sadly, with its academic credentials in tatters, this is a setback the UZ will find difficult to recover from – a fact recognised by the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) which called the awarding of the doctorates, particularly that of the first lady “an insult.”

Zinasu announced plans to take President Mugabe and the UZ to court to justify the awarding of the two doctorates “to protect the image and reputation of the UZ”.

In addition to President Mugabe’s ambition to leave behind a Mugabe-dynasty it is also alleged that, like President Kabila, he will only surrender power to a sympathetic successor to keep him and his close associates out of court and possibly prison for transgressions committed during his presidency. Who else better than a family member?

Should Grace Mugabe enter the succession battle in Zimbabwe and Kabila attempt to amend the DRC’s constitution, the political temperature in two of Southern Africa’s potentially most promising countries will rise dramatically to the detriment of the wider Southern Africa region.

Next week we will take a look at some of the other countries in the region where democracy is undergoing troubled times.

by Garth Cilliers

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