I recently provided commentary on political developments in two of South Africa’s major regional neighbours: Angola and Zimbabwe.

Angola recently held parliamentary elections under a revised elections code. Citizens now vote for parties, which in turn choose who the head of state will be. This political structure was no doubt copied from South Africa, where the party list system has undermined the role of Parliament, entrenched political power in the executive, and thereby reduced democratic legitimacy in my view. Translating this system into the Angolan context, where the MPLA is overwhelmingly politically dominant, does not necessarily represent a victory for democracy, no matter the election results.

The headline result was that the governing MPLA (note: I reject the term ‘ruling’ since it implies a permanency which to me is anathema in a democracy) was returned with 71 percent of the vote. This is down from the last election result in which they won 80 percent. on the face of it an encouraging sign that the opposition, notably UNITA, has gained ground. However, for the reason cited above and since the MPLA is such a dominant political force in Angola, I personally retain a healthy skepticism about these official results in light of the probability of manipulation.

Meanwhile South Africa’s trade and investment relations with Angola remain well below potential. In my view this is largely owing to the fact that the domestic economy is so underdeveloped, with bottlenecks everywhere you turn. Those bottlenecks also apply to accessing opportunities since the MPLA elite dominates virtually every facet of the economy and is determined to extract its share of every business deal, in a classic rentier pattern. The government’s ‘strategic’ approach to trade and industrial policy – essentially an old-school import substitution framework – encases the bottlenecked economy in a giant enclosure. In a country which needs to import many different things; build many different things; and unlock funds left right and centre, it doesn’t make sense to impose an overstretched and corrupt bureaucracy on the private sector. This approach adds to costs and entrenches the potential for corruption. Add to this language, cultural, and political/security dynamics and it is easy to see that it will take South African companies a number of years before the Angolan market becomes a really viable proposition.

Meanwhile the Zimbabwean finance ministry is reportedly negotiating a R1 billion loan from South Africa to plug its rapidly diminishing funding gap. Whether this is purely an MDC initiative, or enjoys ZANU support, is not clear. This is an important question given that country’s complex domestic politics. Nonetheless, as I argued in my quoted comments if such a loan were to be extended by South Africa to Zimbabwe it could provide significant leverage in the ongoing struggle over a post-Mugabe political arrangement. Whether the South African government would use such leverage wisely is another matter entirely, and should not be reduced to the facile level demonstrated in some of the online comments on this article and my statements particularly.

Needless to say this is a controversial proposition likely to encounter strong domestic (to South Africa) opposition and therefore requires careful management. At the very least reasonably tough political conditionalities would have to be imposed, as they were in the case of the mooted Swazi loan last year. Since that loan was never taken up by the Swazi government, it is likely such conditions would also be strongly resisted by ZANU, and possibly the MDC, depending on their nature. Once again the bilateral landscape is shifting, at a time of major political ructions in South Africa. How will this play out? That is anybody’s guess.

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