2019 was the year of elections in southern Africa. South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia all held general elections, following the general election held in Zimbabwe in July 2018.
Prior to these votes, many spoke about the potential for a big shift of power from liberation movements to more contemporary parties, representing a new generation of Africans. That did not happen. Instead, with 2019’s voting over, the status quo has been maintained with governing former liberation movements retaining power quite comprehensively.
Indeed, for opposition parties in southern Africa, 2019 was an annus horribilis. (An exception could be Malawi where the election results are still in dispute and the subject of a court action that still needs to be resolved.) Despite growing dissatisfaction with regional governments, poor service delivery, rising unemployment and growing income inequality, old incumbent parties hung on. Why? And will it ever be possible to move away from the one-party dominant state in the region?
Four factors help explain poor opposition party performances over the past year and hint at what opposition parties need to do if they hope to perform more strongly.
The first factor is the ability of certain governing party candidates to successfully portray themselves as “change candidates,” benefiting from the opportunity of taking over from unpopular, reviled presidents. In many places, this move has deprived the opposition of the opportunity to campaign on the basis of change.
In Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa successfully portrayed himself as the change Zimbabweans needed from Robert Mugabe.
In South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa campaigned for the ANC presidency on the basis of a “new deal”, quickly pivoting toward the promise of a “new dawn” shortly after he took over the reins of government from the deeply unpopular Jacob Zuma.
In Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi took over the presidency from Ian Khama a year out from the election and successfully positioned himself as a vehicle of reform. (In Namibia, where President Hage Geingob stood as an incumbent of over four years, his share of the vote dropped dramatically.)
It appears that a playbook has emerged for struggling liberation movements: Replace the leader or president well before a general election, and ensure the new president communicates an agenda of reform that pre-empts the opposition on who best can deliver tangible change. Couple that with a standard message of staying loyal to the party that delivered freedom and it appears that governing parties have a winning strategy in this region.
Looking ahead to 2023 and 2024, opposition parties need to develop a counter to this set of steps. Their work needs to start with fostering unity and building strong campaign organisations. It also requires doing more to establish an early message framework that links governing parties to “old ways” and themselves to “change”.
A second factor that hurt the region’s opposition parties in 2019 was a lack of unity and common purpose. While it is encouraging to see a united Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Zimbabwe once again, its reunification came way too late. That it was divided for much of the run-up to 2018 elections contributed to a poorer-than-expected election campaign.
In Botswana, the much-vaunted Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) was embroiled in a court action with one of its member parties right up until the start of the official campaign period. Rather than delivering an external message, focused on the voters, newspaper articles and social media posts were taken up by internal divisions and intrigue.
In Namibia, one can only speculate what might have been achieved had the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) and Panduleni Itula joined forces to take on President Hage Geingob.
In South Africa, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was divided for the two-and-a-half years running up to the 2019 general election. Bogged down in internal disputes, disciplinary matters and court cases, it was not able to communicate a clear message until the election campaign was right upon it. In putting together a challenge to an incumbent governing party in the region, unity and common purpose is vital. Opposition parties in countries such as Tanzania and Zambia should take note ahead of their respective upcoming elections.
A third factor is simple poor campaign organisation. The success of the DA in South Africa prior to 2019 holds a big lesson: elections are often won between elections — by building up relationships with voters on the ground through persistent communication and permanent presence. A consistent trend throughout the southern African region was the weak campaigning of opposition parties and poor on-the-ground presence.
In many respects, incumbent parties had an open goal for much of the run-up to their elections. The playing field is most certainly not level. Resources are difficult to generate for opposition parties and candidates, and media access is often constrained to opposition leaders, but you cannot wake up and spring into action three to four months ahead of election day. The campaigns for Elections 2023 and 2024 must begin now.
A fourth, emerging factor is the lack of engagement and participation in elections by an increasing number of southern Africans. For the first time in South Africa, turnout dipped below 70% in a general election. 46% of an estimated nine million eligible South Africans, who did not cast their vote, were aged between 20 and 29. In Namibia, turnout dropped by more than 10 percentage points. In Mozambique, voter turnout hovered around the 50% mark. While turnout is still relatively high in Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe, more needs to be done by opposition parties to expand the electorate by registering and encouraging the participation of younger voters as well as those seeking change.
2019 may not have been the momentous year opposition parties hoped it would be. But it certainly could be pivotal in shaping how opposition parties and movements position themselves. By grabbing the mantle of change and reform, by fostering unity and building organisations focused on permanent campaigning, and by working to boost turnout, opposition parties may have a greater chance than the results of 2019 suggested. The sustainability of democracy in the region depends on it. DM