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Photo source: Council on Foreign Relations

With the end of the cold war, the independence of Namibia in 1990 and the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994, the Southern African region entered an era of relative political stability and competitive multi-party politics. But the peace dividend proved unable to finance the hopes and promises, and more and more political analysts point to the “mixed bag” of democratisation processes. 

Of concern is the marked shift towards authoritarianism in some of the Southern African Development Community countries. [[i]] Since the early 2000s, the region has also seen a surge of foreign direct investment in its extractive economies (driven by growth in China and India) and in the digital economy, with its strategic importance for the global economy. Both these trends have received significant coverage, with democratisation pundits emphasising good governance and participation in election cycles, and economic analysts looking at growth and investment forecasts in commodities like cobalt, copper, platinum, uranium and rare earth minerals. 

Something that has received less attention is the attendant destruction of state’s vital functions in the wake of the harsh neoliberal austerity policies of the 1980s and 1990s, and the stark socio-economic inequality characteristic of inadequate redistributive mechanisms. In 2013, an International Labour Organisation paper highlighted a severe crisis across the region, with poor living conditions, high unemployment and inequality. [[ii]] In several countries, any gains that were made in that respect in the immediate post-independence period of the 1960s have actually been reversed. The report recommended a “developmental state” approach that is driven from below and reflects broader socio-economic concerns, and that depends less on the interests of the ruling parties’ inner circles and on donor prescriptions. A 2017 report from the United Nations Development Programme shows little progress since in alleviating the growing inequality: South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho and Botswana remain among the ten most unequal countries in the world. [[iii]]

Some of the key factors driving growing inequality in the region also influence the kind of politics one finds in the region: all the countries operate a dualistic economic structure, with a small number of citizens employed in the formal sector, and the remainder engaged in precarious and underpaid work in the informal sector or the subsistence economy. The failure of redistributive mechanisms in those countries – a result of prolonged austerity policies and their rentier economies – means that services and infrastructure (health, schooling, transport, water, energy) are concentrated in regions with small, better-off populations. Political parties whose politicians often have business interests tend towards populism rather than concrete measures for redistribution. Their business connections make them reluctant to take on the corporations and business elites that dominate the economies. 

Land is an important resource and welfare mechanism for the rural and urban poor of the region. However, in countries like Namibia, South Africa, Mauritius and Zimbabwe the most fertile land is concentrated in just a few hands. In the former white-settler colonies of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, land ownership reflects a history of racial capital accumulation. However, the frequent Euro-American attitude that land redistribution equates to racial war deflects attention from the inequality. 

After the chaotic land redistribution policy of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe – which effectively rendered the country a pariah state until recently, when Mugabe was eased out of power – the ruling parties of South Africa and Namibia are taking a cautious approach. There, the land reform debate is driven by a restive youth: in Namibia, the Affirmative Repositioning movement has taken on the ruling party South West African People’s Organisation over its failure to make affordable land available to the poor urban youth, organising mass applications for rent-controlled land from municipalities that have dragged their feet over land distribution. 

Meanwhile in South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – an offshoot of the ruling African National Congress’s youth league – call not only for equitable land reform, but also for the nationalisation of key industries to fund wider redistribution. In February 2018, the EFF successfully tabled a parliamentary motion for land redistribution without compensation. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s new president, is to oversee the land reform process. Since he is regarded as inclined to favour corporate interests, there remains some scepticism about his effectiveness. 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, the growth of the extractive industries on the back of a commodity boom has led to calls for the redistribution of income from mineral wealth, much of which finds its way abroad on account of lax tax regimes. The undue influence of the extractive industry lobby means that any discussion of redistributive mining taxes defers to corporate mining interests. An active lobbyist is the Brenthurst Foundation [[iv]] established by the old Oppenheimer mining family, which has the ear of the region’s right-leaning opposition parties. 

In Tanzania, Zambia and the DRC, recent proposals to raise mineral royalties have led to howls of protest from corporations [[v]]. In countries dominated by the extractive industry, all discussion of tax regimes, ownership and indeed whether the cost of extraction is worth the candle has tended to focus on the interests of a narrow political constituency. The views of large swathes of the region’s population – those involved in informal and subsistence work – are ignored. While the corporate mining industry – which often manages to avoid public scrutiny – has negotiated subsidies for itself, these people face increasing costs for land, water and energy. 

Leading opposition parties – like Zambia’s United Party for National Development (UPND) and Tanzania’s Chadema – contribute to stifling the debate. They incline politically to the conservative right and do little to explain how they would tackle inequality. Similarly, the ruling parties in those countries – Chama Cha Mapinduziin Tanzania, led by John Magufuli, and the Patriotic Front in Zambia, led by Edgar Lungu (both men presidents since 2015) – have resorted to top-down populist approaches to deal with discontent over poverty and inequality. 

As parties, the UPND and Chadema have little in the way of an internal democratic structure. The upshot is a form of politics that is neither participatory nor representative of wider concerns, but that has become a factional struggle among each country’s political elites. In both Zambia and Tanzania, the ruling parties have resorted to politically repressive measures: in Zambia, The Postnewspaper was closed down; and in Tanzania, the Mawionewspaper was suspended after investigating dubious mining contracts overseen by Benjamin Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete (both previous leaders of the ruling party). 

There are worrying signs in northern Mozambique and the DRC’s Katanga region that a resurgence of mining and exploration may be dragging those regions into civil strife. In northern Mozambique, the acquisition of land for coal and gas exploration has led to resistance from communities that object to forcible relocation to pave the way for mining. The response has been violent repression by the Mozambican police. There have also been worrying indications of what The Economistreferred to in August 2018 as a “bubbling Islamist insurgency”, including the burning of houses and the beheading of a local Islamic leader. [[vi]] The appearance in Mozambique of Erik Prince of the private security contractor Blackwater (implicated in war crimes in Iraq) and his offer to stabilise the situation in the northern mining regions raise serious concerns.

In the DRC, political tension is rising after the breakdown of the political alliance between President Joseph Kabila and Moïse Katumbi Chapwe, the exiled former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, who now aims to contest the presidency. Kabila – who recently agreed to elections after refusing to step down – is embattled on several fronts: poverty and insecurity are growing in various parts of the country; meanwhile the multinational mining companies are resisting a proposed increase in mining royalties, which would boost revenue from strategic mineral resources like cobalt (the country has roughly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves). Some of the tensions reflect a geopolitical struggle for resources: over the past decade, China – a relative newcomer to the region – has muscled in on the extractive sector, which has hitherto been dominated by Euro-American mining interests.

A political focus on commercial agriculture, agribusiness and the extractive sector is undermining discussion of how to achieve equitable redistribution in this, the world’s most unequal region. It is particularly concerning that the largest opposition parties in South Africa (Democratic Alliance), Tanzania (Chadema) and Zambia (UPND) offer little in the way of alternatives, and are actually veering even further to the right of the ruling parties. The present focus on electoral politics and procedures is not enough to build on the democratisation process that started in the 1990s. 

What is needed is a shift towards participatory economic models and a willingness to introduce wide-ranging redistributive mechanisms. This would involve a developmental state, progressive taxation, a war on corporate-sector tax evasion, collective and state ownership of strategic resources, and the equitable distribution of land and access to services. The political redistributive agenda is being pushed by the region’s youth, who are the biggest losers from the current economic system and who have much to gain by keeping the growing inequalities to the fore of the political agenda. 


* Doctor Patience Mususa is a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. Her research interests are mining and urbanisation in southern Africa. 


[i]SADC has 15 Member States: Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

[iv]The think tank behind the Zambezi Protocol on extractives. accessed on 4 September 2018

[v]Some of which, like Glencore’s Mopani Copper Mines in Zambia and Barrick’s Acacia Mining in Tanzania, have allegedly been evading taxes.