Southern Africa Watch

Winds of change blowing in Southern Africa

Eduardo dos Santos

New stewardship in three Southern African countries is promising a regional break from the past and fighting corruption.

In much the same way as South Africa, a new Angolan president is taking a hardline approach.

Of all the region’s countries, Angola is by far the most guarded and reserved, even secretive, news from there is hard to come by – often sketchy, and mostly heavily censored, exacerbated by Portuguese being the official language in the predominantly English-speaking region.

Coming to power after a bloody liberation struggle with strong Soviet and Cuban support, the ruling MPLA party always tried to project an image of uniformity and discipline.

The MPLA consolidated its absolute grip on Angola after the surrender of its main rival, Unita, following its charismatic leader, Jonas Savimbi, being killed by government troops in 2002.

Eduardo dos Santos who came to power in September 1979 in turn, consolidated his grip on the MPLA, becoming so entrenched as party leader and president that he became known as the “eternal leader”.

Last year, Dos Santos, after 38 years in power, announced that he will step down as president but stay on as party leader.

Insurance policy

In power, Dos Santos amassed a fortune and, to protect his business empire, he first took out an ‘insurance policy.’

It was in the form of some of his children and close associates being appointed in strategic positions to protect his, and their, interests.

He also handpicked his successor, the 63 year old MPLA party stalwart and former defense minister, Joao Lourenco.

Dos Santos ‘proposed’ to the MPLAcentral committee that Lourenco be its presidential candidate for the August 2017 election.

After his election Lourenco boldly stated that he “would be nobody’s puppet,” but few believed him. The opposition mockingly dubbed him “the chauffeur,” implying that Dos Santos would be instructing him where to go and when.


To the astonishment of most, Lourenco a few months after his election started to act in defiance of Dos Santos, leaving observers and analysts at a loss as to why he has chosen this line of action, which must surely place him on a head-on collision course with Dos Santos and his powerful associates.

Even Marcolino Moco, a former Angolan prime minister and critic of Dos Santos, said: “It was unexpected at this early stage, but Lourenco is sending a sign that the excesses of the Dos Santos era will not continue.”

On taking office Lourenco pledged to clean up Angola's endemic graft and revive the country’s listless economy. He seems to be delivering on his promises.

In November last year it made the headlines that he fired Isabel dos Santos as chairperson of Sonangol, Angola’s prestigious and all important state-run oil company.

Sonangol is responsible for more than 70% of Angola's foreign exchange earnings – the biggest source of state funding.

A Reuters report had it that the firing was prompted by a meeting between Lourenco with the top executives of all Angola’s major oil companies. 

Significantly there was no noticeable fight back, at least publically, by the former president. Even Isabel’s reaction was extraordinary timid. She did complain that she was not allowed enough time to put plans she had in mind for reviving Angola’s ailing oil company, into practice, but denied any tension with president Lourenco – insisting their views were in “full alignment”.


In an act described by critics as unashamed nepotism and corruption of the highest order, Dos Santos in 2015 appointment his daughter as chairperson of Sonangol.

Often described as the public face of the Dos Santos business empire, Isabel dos Santos is according to Forbes, the wealthiest woman in Africa, worth US$ 5 billion. She has interests in various sectors ranging from mobile phones to banking in both Angola and Portugal.

Much of her accumulated wealth is directly linked to preferential treatment and easy access to government contracts.   

Her appointment followed after her father also appointment of one of his sons, Jose Filomeno dos Santos, as head of Angola’s US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund a couple of years ago.

Dos Santos is accused of mismanaging Angola's oil wealth, creating a vastly rich elite of mainly his family and political allies in sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest economy, ranked amongst the world's most corrupt.

President Lourenco did not stop with firing Isabel dos Santos, replacing her with an official she in turn had fired previously, but also abolished the government communications department, GRECIMA, set up by his predecessor and, with which a company co-owned by another dos Santos daughter, had lucrative contracts.

He also replaced Filomeno dos Santos as head of the sovereign fund after an external inquiry into the fund’s performance and governance.

His next move was to dismiss the police chief and head of the intelligence, both close allies of the former president. Doing so despite a law dos Santos got passed in parliament, prohibiting the firing of the police-, and intelligence chiefs for the next eight years.

Qualified support

Lourenco’s raid on the former president’s empire has been greeted with qualified support in Angola and, on social media people have shared an image from film “The Terminator,” with Lourenco’s face replacing that Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Some observers and analysts expressed cautious optimism, while others have been openly critical. A view, expressed by an Angolan expert that seems to encapsulate the current sentiment that, “There is a danger of confusing a vendetta against dos Santos with a true reform agenda.”

The parliamentary leader of the opposition Unita party warned, “We’re still in the phase of promises… action hasn’t brought us anything yet”

Others are still skeptical that anything substantive has changed. Rafael Marques de Morais, a well- known Angolan investigative journalist and activist, called Lourenco’s government “a redux of the dos Santos one.” Piers Pigou, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said some of the changes might have been orchestrated to appease ordinary Angolans, who in August last year voted for the MPLA in record low numbers. “Things may have been choreographed to give the impression that things are changing and that there’s a new broom,” he said. “It’s possible that much of this is theatre.”
Skepticism is understandable, but Lourenco’s rise to the top is significant, if only for the fact that he is believed to be non-corruptible, a rare quality in senior MPLA’s leadership ranks.

However, there is a possibility that Dos Santos is not as invincible as generally thought after surrendering the presidency.

Lourenco was not necessarily his first choice as portrayed in the media, but rather the candidate of a concerned the party – and the MPLA has reason to be concerned.

The collapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the Angolan government’s income, and decimated the private economy. The poor are getting poorer, and may eventually get angry.

Unita won 27% of the votes in the August 2017 election, 10% more than ever before, despite what was probably large-scale vote-rigging. According to one commentator, “There is a lot of dry political tinder lying around waiting for a match” and to perpetuate the Dos Santos tradition could provide the match.

Three major countries in Southern Africa; Angola, South Africa, and Zimbabwe recently came under new stewardship with promises of a break from the past, and to pursue good and clean government.

Ramaphosa in South Africa and Lourenco in Angola have begun with a clean-up operation and there are promises that Zimbabwe might follow. It is early days but as one commentator said – “hope springs”.

by Garth Cilliers

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