While South Africa, like just about everyone else, is focusing its attention on civil wars to the north, the low-level conflict that recently erupted between Mozambique’s Frelimo government and its old civil-war foe, Renamo, is slowly spreading.
From the origins of his party’s home province of Sofala, Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama has recently projected enough power to launch attacks into other provinces such as Nampula, Niassa and Tete. The latest incursion in the southern province of Inhambane has begun to threaten the lucrative tourism business, from South Africa especially.
Renamo is posing another significant threat to the economy by attacking traffic on the main south-north EN1 highway, and threatening to attack the vital railway line carrying coal exports from the north-western Tete province to the port of Beira.
Yet, you would hardly know about these alarming developments from the dearth of official or even media attention. This can partly be explained by the fact that a simmering conflict in Mozambique does not fit in with anyone’s narrative – which is that southern Africa is Africa’s most peaceful region.
As a European Union (EU) official recently said, southern Africa should be doing more to reap the economic benefits – for itself and perhaps also for the continent as a whole – of being Africa’s most politically stable and secure region.
But, as Mozambique is demonstrating, that stability should not be taken for granted.
The same EU official also pointed out that there are some common risks to stability that can be discerned across the region. These risks are particularly pertinent this year, when five countries from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will be holding elections: Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Malawi.
These include a growing populace of young people, who are largely unemployed and increasingly disenchanted by slow economic growth – which is in any case not being widely experienced by the elite, partly because of corruption.
SADC, as the official observed, is Africa’s youngest region from a political point of view, with on average the fewest years since independence or liberation.
In one way this is probably a stabilising factor, since the party that would have attained liberation is often still in control. The danger, though, is that such ruling parties develop a sense of entitlement to power. The lines between ruling party and government become indistinguishably blurred, and those further from the trough grow increasingly discontented.
When the liberation movement eventually and inevitably exhausts its liberation credit and begins to confront a real threat from the opposition, the results can be messy – as we saw in Zimbabwe.
Zanu-PF is back in control in Harare, but the credibility of its electoral victory last July has not been universally acknowledged. The aftermath of its bitter struggle against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the doldrum years of the coalition government have left very deep wounds in the country’s economy.
As the EU official said, European investors are still mostly sitting on their wallets, waiting for clarity on Zanu-PF’s economic policy. Particularly, they are waiting to see whether Zimbabwe really intends to implement its indigenisation policy.
“The lines between ruling party and government become blurred, and those further from the trough grow increasingly discontented”
The EU also sees this uncertainty about the protection of investments in Zimbabwe as a regional issue, having noted the spat with South Africa over its unilateral cancellation of bilateral investment treaties. It draws some comfort from the fact that SADC is currently working on an investment protection code, and it is also placing some hope in the fact that SADC is formally reviewing its election standards.
The EU was not invited by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to send an election observer mission to last year’s polls, and clearly remains rather unconvinced by the African Union (AU) and SADC’s assessments that the overwhelming official victories – for both Mugabe in the presidential race and Zanu-PF in the legislative contest – were ‘credible’.
The EU’s ambivalence about the elections will likely lead to an equally ambivalent decision when it meets to review its sanctions (or ‘restrictive measures’) on Zimbabwe. It was only after boycott threats by SADC, in particular, that Brussels decided to invite Mugabe – and not just the Zimbabwean government – to the 4th EU-Africa summit in April; this even though the soon-to-be nonagenarian leader is still officially under a European travel ban.
The EU is concerned that what it clearly regards as an overly lenient assessment by SADC of the Zimbabwe elections, might spread to the other regional elections this year. It is hoping that SADC’s review of electoral standards will lead to stricter adherence of member states to the standards.
This should be done sooner rather than later. Ruling liberation movements invariably circulate the myth that they will govern ‘until the Second Coming,’ as President Jacob Zuma infamously put it. The grave danger presented by this is that the myth becomes self-fulfilling. The more a ruling party remains in power, the more everyone fears that dislodging it will prove more de-stabilising than leaving it in power.
That fear was palpable in Zimbabwe before last year’s elections, when even MDC supporters feared their own party would win and prompt Zanu-PF generals to mount a coup.
This clearly formed part of the thinking behind both former president Thabo Mbeki and Zuma’s mediation in Zimbabwe, which really just took the country back to square one. Whether that has addressed the underlying sources of discontent and instability is very unclear.
The reasons for the crisis in Mozambique are perhaps murkier. Dhlakama is clearly another Savimbi: a perpetual malcontent unable to accept second place. SADC has blamed him entirely for the latest eruptions. Yet, most other observers believe Frelimo must also bear some of the blame – for running the country for too long, largely for its own benefit.
The reasons for southern Africa’s relative stability are no doubt many and varied. Having South Africa as its core country is surely a major factor; but the stability produced by de facto one-party rule is another.
Yet, the rumblings right on our doorstep in Zimbabwe, and now in Mozambique, are a warning that this factor of stability can eventually become the opposite.
Written by Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa.