Southern Africa Watch

Southern Africa’s turmoil threats mount

Grace Mugabe

Despite some recent positive developments, the general picture of the current state of play in the Southern Africa region is cause for caution.

Punch drunk from the recent torrent of revelations of corruption, bad governance and state capture, surrounding the South African Zuma-administration, I decided to take a break to look at the state of play in the rest of our region.

The relief was sight. Bar a few positives developments, including peaceful elections in Lesotho and Renamo’s declared intention (let’s hope it lasts) to give peace a chance in Mozambique, there are worrying signs that democracy, human rights and freedom of speech are under pressure, as shown in the following four examples.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

What must be one of the greatest mysteries of post-colonial Africa, is the never ending killing fields in the DRC – potentially the richest country in Africa, it is Southern Africa’s most troublesome.

Much of the blame should go to the colonial powers, which carved-up Africa to satisfy their graving for empire building. Since independence in 1960, no attempt at lasting peace in the DRC had any success.

Recent reports once again detail clashes between DRC security forces and militia groups, which seem to keep on multiplying and keeping the country in a permanent state of internal conflict. 

The current round of conflict has not only led to the death of thousands, and displacement of more than million people, and an estimated 25 000 fled to Angola, it also triggered fears of wider conflict in the DRC. Political tensions is running high after President Joseph Kabila's decision to stay in power beyond the December 2016 end of his mandate.

The possible spillover of the conflict has neighbouring countries on edge – Angola in particular has expressed concern about the influx of refugees’ potential impact on upcoming elections in August. The election will see the replacement of president dos Santos after more than three decades in power.  

As a precaution the Luanda government has deployed troops to the DRC border, and with some analysts believe they have already entered Congolese territory. Another period of unrest in Central Africa could be on the cards, adding to the instability already witnessed in the Great Lakes region with South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) already in chaos.

As events this weekend in Pretoria, with Kabila’s arrival for the tenth meeting of the Bi-National Commission between the two countries prove, with so many DRC refugees spread through the region, what happens there impact well beyond its own borders.


There is growing concern about media freedom and human rights in Tanzania after two recent highly controversial statements.

In the first, a newspaper – not the first, since John Magufuli became president in 2015 – was slapped with a two year banning for publishing the photos of two former presidents, Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete, and linking them to a government probe into allegations of misconduct in the mining sector.

Since becoming president Magufuli, also known as “the Bulldozer” for his leadership style, which has earned him praise and criticism, has been critical of the media. The Media Services Bill, replacing the independent media oversight mechanisms with a government-controlled one, and requiring all journalists to get accreditation from a government-appointed board, the media in Tanzania felt under threat.

The president is also heavily criticized by human rights groups for his controversial threat to expel pregnant schoolgirls. In 2015, Tanzania implemented a free high school education policy, but according to the president it excludes young mothers.

He also said men who impregnated schoolgirls, should be imprisoned for 30 years and put to work on farms.

Magufuli’s outbursts, critics say, make him a “steamroller” wanting to crush media freedom and human rights.


Zambia has also been in the news for all the wrong reasons, after for years being seen as Southern Africa’s proof that democracy can work in Africa. It has been on a downhill trajectory since a succession of leaders began acting more dictatorial than democratic.

This trend took a turn for the worse since President Lungu took over the reins after President Sata’s death in 2014. It picked up alarming speed after Lungu’s close election victory in the controversial 2016 presidential election against Hakainde Hichilema – his winning margin so slim that many, including Hichilema, claimed it was rigged.

It resulted in a court challenge, angering the ruling party and Lungu to such an extent that Hichilema was arrested on a charge of treason after his motorcade refused to give way for the president and his entourage.

 Adding injury to insult, Zambia's National Assembly speaker soon afterwards suspended 48 opposition members for 30 days as a punishment for their unauthorized absence from parliament when boycotting Lungu's state of the nation address.

Lungu’s growing authoritarianism, and intimidation tactics, will not only cost Zambia its democratic image, but also heighten political tension in the country.


At 93 years of age, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is nearing the end of his rule, despite being elected as presidential candidate of his party for next year’s election, and his wife’s assurance that he is “as strong as an iron bar.”

Southern Africa should prepare itself for a vicious, possible violent, power struggle once Mugabe departs. Indications of concern in this regard, from within the of ruling party and the security establishment, should be heeded.

In the center of this uneasiness, Is Mugabe’s wife, Grace, better amongst her critics as Gucci Grace” for her alleged extravagant lifestyle and shameless campaigning to succeed her husband.

It was reported that Happyton Bonongwe, Zimbabwe’s intelligence chief, recently warned President Mugabe that his wife’s forceful, and unrefined campaign, may stoke political violence, and a strong response from the very influential security secto, supporting Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa as his successor.

Mugabe apparently did asked Grace to tone down her campaigning, and to back her main rival, Emerson Mnangagwa.

This seems somewhat odd since Mugabe, more than once, hinted he would welcome the continuation of a Mugabe dynasty. It is also peculiar that he would silence his wife, having been the puppet master who choreographed her meteoritic political rise in the ruling party.

It could also be a move to placate the influential security establishment, which remains Mnangagwa’s power base.

However, fact remains, the consequences could be severe and detrimental if the Zimbabwean power struggle turns violent, and tension and public dissatisfaction in other countries increase as a result.

by Garth Cilliers

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