Can Liberation Movements Really Rid Southern Africa of Corruption?

Southern Africa’s national liberation movements have survived ‘end of decade’ elections across the region. Combating corruption has been at the heart of many of the campaigns, but the question is can they succeed?

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Published 17 December 2019 Updated 13 February 2020 2 minute READ
Supporters of the Namibian incumbent president and ruling party South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) presidential candidate Hage Geingob cheer and dance. Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images.

Supporters of the Namibian incumbent president and ruling party South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) presidential candidate Hage Geingob cheer and dance. Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images.

Swapo’s victory in Namibia two weeks ago was the last in a series of recent ‘end of decade’ elections that have returned dominant parties to power across Southern Africa. However, the “enduring appeal of liberation” is wearing thin.

Experiences across the region show that if governments are to deliver on their electoral promises, they must empower institutions, actively promote a culture of accountability and transparency within their party ranks and pursue economic reforms that untangle the web of party-state-business alliances. Such actions are critical for the survival of national liberation movements as the dominant force in the politics of Southern Africa – but will be difficult to implement.

Avoid political factionalism

South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Zimbabwe all saw new presidents take over just before elections. All used the rhetoric of anti-corruption to distance themselves from the tainted image of their predecessors. But acting on this requires a shift in mind-set in parties that have always preferred to deal with their problems behind closed doors. High profile adversaries from past regimes make tempting targets but could also drive party divisions.

In Angola, the transition of power was safeguarded by an agreement that former president José Eduardo dos Santos would be immune from prosecution. But this week his son faced corruption charges before the country’s supreme court, a high-profile example of a wave of anti-corruption cases across Southern Africa, driven by dominant parties wary of their future.

The allegations against José Filemino De Sousa Dos Santos, nickname ‘Zenu’, include a $500-million fraud involving the country’s central bank. Pressure is also mounting on Zenu’s sister Isabel — once prominent in Angola, she is now absent from public life.

Other leaders have had to tread more carefully. Immunity was a luxury Cyril Ramaphosa was neither willing nor politically able to grant Jacob Zuma in South Africa. Reliant on a few close allies at the top of the party, Ramaphosa lacks foot soldiers at the grassroots level, and his campaign against corruption within the ANC has faced persistent opposition.

Rebuilding institutions and empowering authorities takes time, and with few high-profile cases to point to, people are getting restless. This is also the case in Zimbabwe, where a worsening economic situation has left policy reformers politically isolated.

Party, state, and business

Long term incumbency has blurred the distinction between the party and the state. Liberation movements have created vast party-linked business empires. Political allegiance grants access to economic resources through appointments to lucrative positions in state-owned enterprises, preferential bids for tenders and licenses, and direct access to decision makers.

In Angola, this was fuelled by oil revenues. In South Africa, state capture flourished in an environment where the ANC and its constituent elements had significant power on the panels that chose leaders for state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In Namibia, an Icelandic fishing company paid backhanders to officials for fishing rights in what has become known as the ‘Fishrot’ scandal. Zanu-PF officials’ access to preferential foreign exchange rates present them with lucrative opportunities in Zimbabwe.

Ending this bureaucratic rent seeking goes beyond appointing ‘clean’ officials, which has been central to the anti-corruption campaigns in Angola and South Africa. Governments must also allow scrutiny of the state and empower those institutions designed for that role, such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the Public Protector in South Africa. Zimbabwe’s auditor general has published an in-depth report of the state of corruption in the country’s SOEs.

Companies must also be held to account for their role in aiding, and at worst directly benefitting, from state graft. International businesses have actively sought to benefit from corruption. They are now starting to face the consequences. A former Credit Suisse banker has pleaded guilty in the US over handling alleged kickbacks in Mozambique’s $2-billion “tuna bond” scandal. Global banks and consultancies continue to feel the squeeze for their complicity in state capture in South Africa.

Competition and pluralism

National liberation movements may only have a limited window within which to act. Across the region civil society campaigns and investigative journalists have shed light on some of the worst abuses of power. Anti-corruption campaigns are starting to bite. The state will continue to play a central role in Southern African economies, an important arbiter of economic transformation able to balance the region’s highly unequal and resource-dependent economies.

But opposition, civil society and the media are also critical for the progression towards democratic competition and pluralism in Southern Africa. Parliaments remain vital for holding rulers to account. Long used to unchallenged dominance, liberation movements have significant adjustments to make to rise to the challenge of a new era.

This article was originally published in the Mail and Guardian.