The next 5 years could change Africa forever; and these events might sink or raise it to the skies

Within the next 5 years two of Africa’s long-serving leaders - Angola's dos Santos and Zimbwe's Mugabe- will either leave us or step down from power.

OVER the next five years, two of the elite club of Africa’s longest-serving leaders will either fall off their thrones or step down.

Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 73, has been in power for 36 years  –  just over a month shy of the record holder, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has also been in office since 1979.

Recently, the ailing dos Santos hinted that he might, finally, step down when his current term ends in 2017.

(READ: It’s not wise for me to step down now, Angola’s long-serving president Dos Santos says, but signals change).

The other is Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old Robert Mugabe. In power for 35 years,
Mugabe has taken a country with among the hightest literacy rates on the continent, and once had one of its most advanced agriculture sectors, so much that some dubbed it the “California of Africa”, and run it to the ground.

(READ: Zimbabwe’s formal employment now lower than 47years ago – when Mugabe was rebel leader and white premier Ian Smith ruled.)

When inflation hit 50 billion percent in 2009, the only desperate Hail Mary pass left for Mugabe’s government was to abandon the Zimbabwe dollar, and adopt other currencies like the US dollar and the South African rand.

 Dos Santos says 2017 would the right time to consider a successor. His departure would offer Angola the possibility to finally come from under the water for a breath of fresh air. (Photo/AFP).

Now, as Mugabe publicly struggles with the toll of advanced age, the vultures in his own ruling Zanu-PF are circling and waiting to pounce on his carcass.

Feast in Luanda

Dos Santos didn’t quite wreck his economy the way Mugabe did his, but his rule has been repressive, and unsurpassed in the rapacity with which the ruling MPLA elite in Luanda and his own family have gorged on the nation’s vast mineral and oil wealth, and left the vast majority of the people poor and hungry.

One cannot say that the dos-Santos and post-Mugabe eras will be reformist, but they are likely to be better, even if, at the worst, other rascals from their ruling parties took over. That is because no successor to either men will have their liberation struggle and “founding father” credentials, and therefore will have to be more accommodating or at least try to push policy to create new wealth with which to buy the loyalty of the political class.

That would unlock new energies, and could be a steroid injection in the arm of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). That Angola and Zimbabwe are in southern Africa matters, because SADC has many things going for it.

It is the most peaceful region in Africa, and the only one that doesn’t have a major terrorism problem.

(READ: Don’t want terrorists to kill you? Then live in southern Africa).

But more significantly, Dos Santos’ exit and Mugabe’s departure would almost coincide with the farewell of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, whose term ends in 2019.

Like Angola and Zimbabwe, Zuma’s South Africa has been plagued by corrupt and incompetent rule, though obviously nowhere near that of its two SADC peers.

A few days ago thousands marched in three of South Africa’s big cities to protest corruption. It is one of the reasons why the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) has been shrinking electorally, it’s share falling to 62% in the 2014 polls. (READ: Thousands of South Africans march in three cities to protest corruption, but little change expected).

Analysts say Zuma is nervous that after he leaves, he might be prosecuted for corruption, and is therefore plotting to have someone he can “trust” take over from him. South African media has speculated that the polygamous Zuma is fancying to help his ex-wife, current chief executive of the African Union, to succeed him. That would mean breaching the ANC’s unwritten code, where the deputy president takes over from the president when his term ends.

Unusual Mandela

Thabo Mbeki took over from Nelson Mandela, the country’s first post-apartheid and democratically elected leader, who unsually for a continent beset by big men who keep scrapping term limits so they can rule as presidents for life, chose to serve only one term.

Zuma was Mbeki’s deputy, but didn’t wait for the natural rhythm of ANC politics to play itself out. In 2008 he ejected Mbeki as ANC leader in a palace coup. That left the cerebral and mercurial Mbeki no option but to fall on his sword, and resign as the nation’s president, and power thus passed into Zuma’s hands.

Zuma’s deputy, tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa, is urbane and far more forward-looking in politics than his boss, but he lacks the president’s political cunning and street smarts, and is reviled by the left of both the ANC and its radical affiliates as a lackey of South African big business. Some though, consider that a strong suite.

In any event, the ANC will have to do business differently after 2019. If the transition is badly managed in a way that leaves ugliness, and Ramaphosa is manhandled out of the succession queue, it could split the ANC and weaken it further, and almost certainly bring its share of the vote far below 60%. The one good thing is that that will put it beyond the ANC to amend the constitution and imperil South African democracy.

But if Ramaphosa became president, he would be resisted by the trade unions and populist constituencies in South Africa, but would bring more competent management to government.

Mugabe goes into a zone: Some argue that a post-Mugabe order would of be better just by being a post-Mugabe order, and unleash Zimbabwe’s tremendous talents in ways that will dramatically gift the region. (Photo/AFP).

South Africa might last year have been overtaken as Africa’s largest economy by Nigeria, but part of that is just by dint of size – with a population of nearly 180 million, Nigeria has a market that is over three times bigger than South Africa’s. You can make more money selling flip flops in the market in Lagos than cellphones in Pretoria.

However, unlike in the rest of the continent, it doesn’t take much to dig South Africa out the holes it keeps falling into, because it sits on a fairly solid base. After spending most of 2014 and 2015 buffeted by power cuts that were hurting industry, it added some hundreds of megawatts to the grid almost quietly, and is now close to solving that problem.

Things like that get done in South Africa without the song, dance, and confetti, that you would see in many other countries.  Afterall, it alone already produces nearly half of Africa’s electricity.

South Africa overtaking Nigeria again?

A recovering post-Mugabe Zimbabwe would not only offer a re-energised South Africa new opportunities to grow richer, but could also ease the pressure of the estimated over one million Zimbabweans in South Africa who might want to return home to rebuild their lives.

And then a more open and less corrupt Angola would expand the opportunities for South Africa, as the economic behemoth in the region.

For even with the beating it has taken to its image with the disgraceful xenophobic attacks on African immigrants early this year, even a casual visitor to a mall in Johannesburg will figure out quickly that South Africa is Africa’s supermarket and will remain so for a while.

Though Muhammadu Buhari is just setting out on his ambitious plan to shake up the Nigerian giant, it is not inconceivable South Africa can overtake it as Africa’s largest economy if he falters -  then we would have a race on our hands.

Southern Africa might still not be the winner of the next few years; after all the region’s population isn’t as dynamic as that in East Africa. But for events in southern Africa to buoy the south and impact the rest of the continent, they need developments in the Horn of Africa, in Libya, West Africa, and East Africa to align.  

The second part of this article examines these developments. (READ: The next 5 years: Africa will shine, it just needs to outrun its many ghosts).

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