by Stef Terblanche

Democracy in Southern Africa

Key elections may change face of Southern Africa


Key elections across Southern Africa during the next 18 months could trigger critical political and economic changes in the region and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Zimbabwe’s make-or-break elections are first up at the end of July, followed by Swaziland in August and September, and Mozambique and South Africa next year.

Electioneering in all these states is marked by high levels of tension and intense power struggles, economic pressures and various existing or emerging crises. In all it could either lead to a strengthening of democracy, more stability and economic growth or destruction on all fronts. There is much at stake for the individual countries and the entire region.

Wider afield, elections are also due in Botswana and Namibia sometime next year, but no serious drama is expected there, although Botswana’s domestic political scene in recent times has experienced its most upheaval since independence.

In Malawi, which must also hold presidential and parliamentary elections next year, the first since President Joyce Banda became president after the death in office of the allegedly corrupt President Bingu wa Mutharika, the prospects are uncertain. Political upheaval and protests have increased there over the last year and smooth elections are not guaranteed and any serious upheavals could also impact on the region.

In troubled Madagascar presidential elections scheduled for 24 July have once again been postponed and it is now hoped elections will take place on 23 August to end the rule of Andry Rajoelina, who came to power in a 2009 military coup. Given Madagascar’s unstable past there is a high probability of a disputed outcome that could trigger new protests and violence.

In Zambia the 2011 elections produced a hung parliament and since then the 158-member institution has seen 31 by elections, there are currently eight more to come with a possible two more, depending on the outcome of court procedures. There are fears that democracy in that country is under threat.

But it is especially the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique and South Africa that are of most concern to the region.



The biggest threat to regional stability is Zimbabwe where the stakes have just been upped to a critical level. Opposition parties have called for more time to confirm, among others, critical reforms of the largely state-owned media and the security sector.

A mysterious application by a Zimbabwean citizen recently led to the country’s Constitutional Court – said to be biased in Mugabe’s favour – ruling that the country’s first elections since its 2008 political crisis and since the adoption of a new constitution in terms of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) be held on 31 July.

An SADC attempt to secure a postponement of the election failed and opposition parties go into the elections in two weeks’ time, heavily disadvantaged. Not only are the playing fields not level, but the opposition parties are not nearly ready for elections and international monitors needed to ensure free and fair elections are not in place.

If opposition parties take part none-the-less, the outcome will most likely be heavily disputed. There is also every chance that violence and repression may again escalate, which in turn could trigger new waves of refugees fleeing to neighbouring SADC countries.

The Zimbabwean military and other security elements have already given notice that they will not support any other government in the unlikely event that Mugabe and Zanu-PF are not returned to power.

The military is also increasingly moving into business, causing opposition politicians to ponder whether it is busy preparing to back up a parallel government. Despite being fully government funded via the third biggest allocation in the last national budget, it has recently substantially expanded its business interests in diamond and coal mining, energy and tourism.

One unknown card in the pack however, is held by millions of Zimbabweans who fled into exile after 2008 as economic and/or political refugees. They will be allowed to vote in terms of the new constitution, provided that the necessary systems and facilities will be in place timeously.

The developments in Zimbabwe have also embarrassed the SADC and its mediation efforts led by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, and to some extent the African Union (AU).

SADC probably has one final card it can play – withholding the $132-million in election funding Mugabe has requested.



Swaziland is set to hold a first round of national elections in August, followed by the secondary round on 20 September. However, the elections have been widely criticised as little more than window-dressing aimed at perpetuating the undemocratic and repressive rule of Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III.

Preparations for the elections have been preceded over the last two years by unprecedented pro-democracy strikes and protests, all of which have been rather heavy-handedly been repressed. 

Many Swazis are also highly critical of the king’s wasteful extravagance while the country is undergoing severe economic difficulties. 

Political parties are banned in Swaziland and a traditional political system is imposed which sees executive authority being vested in the king as the head of state. He governs with an Advisory Council and traditional advisers in a stark departure from the policy prescriptions of the SADC. But so far SADC has failed to intervene or put pressure on Swaziland.

While the Swazi Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) claims much popular enthusiasm for the forthcoming elections, critics say it has registered only 70% of the eligible 600 000 voters in the country. 

Protest against the monarchy and activism in favour of a new constitution and multi-party democracy have to date been haphazard, uncoordinated and easily repressed by the authorities. But, anything is possible.

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