Lessons from Trump’s dethronement for Africa

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – NOVEMBER 05: A man participating in a protest in support of counting all votes watches U.S. President Donald Trump hold a news conference as the election in the state is still unresolved on November 5, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With no winner yet declared in the presidential election, all eyes are on the outcome of a few remaining swing states. Chris McGrath/Getty Images/AFP

In a historic US election, President Donald Trump was ousted from office by Joe Biden. Biden won 50.8% of the popular vote, while Trump still managed 47.5% in the largest voter turnout since 1908. The presidency of Donald Trump is widely viewed as anomalous, a monstrous blip in an otherwise healthy and deeply consolidated democracy. This would be a mistake. A deeper analysis reveals that populism can take root even in societies with relatively broad-based access to political and economic opportunities.

Globalisation, accelerating apace since the end of the Cold War in 1989, has resulted in a highly uneven distribution of the gains from trade and volatility from easy flight of capital. While global GDP has ballooned, inequalities have widened, with real income growth among the top quintile rapidly outpacing middle class wage growth. Local displacement has intensified. Outsourcing or automating jobs in the name of economic efficiency has created political ruptures in historically strong democracies. These dynamics have ploughed the soil for populism to take root. The populist playbook is to exploit the fears and disappointments of the economically marginalised and subvert democratic institutions in the process.

Trump’s tantrums over alleged vote-rigging and repeated court threats are simply part of the script. The phenomenon of democratic backsliding has so arrested the attention of scholars that between 2011 and 2018 alone, 1,700 academic articles were published on the subject. In the 40 years prior, a total of 1,500 articles covering threats to democracy appeared. The fact that Biden has won out against Trump may provide some reprieve for friends of democracy across the globe, but complacency is unwarranted. Otherwise strong democratic equilibria tend to be disrupted by socio-economic inequality, financial shocks, the exploitation of extreme political views by technological interference (read Cambridge Analytica) and the resultant perpetuation of echo-chamber social-media politics.

None of these trends show any sign of abating. Worryingly, they are also mutually reinforcing, which can create path-dependent trajectories away from democracy. As scholar Daron Acemoglu has pointed out, the global factors that have contributed to growing domestic inequality in the US have not been addressed, and policymakers are far from a consensus on how this can be done. Biden’s work is cut out for him to forge bi-partisan agreement that, for instance, higher federal minimum wages and a more redistributive tax system may be desirable. Even with that in place, though, the global trend towards distrusting scientific facts and resenting elites is strengthening. Populism thrives in such contexts.

Perhaps the most concerning element of Trump’s ascendancy was the willingness of Abraham Lincoln’s 150-year-old party to acquiesce to Trump’s proposition to ride on a Republican ticket. And, typical of populist incoherence, most of what he stood for and campaigned on were diametrically opposed to orthodox republican positions such as free trade. Nonetheless, as one commentator put it, Biden has ‘sleep-walked’ into the White House and the embers of democracy are still alive in the US. Notwithstanding the warning to avoid complacency, it remains good news because, on average, democracy causes economic growth. Why? Because its ability to remove leaders like Trump is one of its enduring attractions.

Consolidated democracy, for all its inefficiencies, respects the rule of law, insists on the separation of powers, punishes corruption, and gives the citizenry a voice that produces proper accountability from the elite. This institutional strength, in turn, results in economic dynamism, as contracts are honoured and businesses can flourish. Responsible players are crowded in while irresponsible players are either crowded out or deterred from engaging in corrupt activities. In a nutshell, good governance is more likely to take root in the context of robust political competition where the opposition has a fair and credible chance of winning elections.

While the world breathes a momentary sigh of relief, African countries continue to fight for democracy to take root at all, never mind worrying about whether it will consolidate. While the evidence suggests that democratisation across the continent is advancing, on average, a number of important red flags punctuate the trend. Tanzania, soon to be among the most populous countries on the continent, held its general elections on 28 October 2020. Incumbent President John Magufuli successfully rigged the process to secure for himself an incredible 84% of the vote while the main opposition managed to eke out 13%. According to the Polity V dataset, the country’s democratic score improved from 2 (out of a possible 10) to 4 from 2014 to 2015 (the year in which Magufuli came to power).

We expect that figure to move below zero once the next set of figures is released. Not only did Magufuli rig the elections, he has ruled with an iron fist of fear, initially rooting out some petty corruption – his populist ticket – but he has since crushed civil liberties and shut down opportunities for opposition parties to engage in politics. Post-election, Tundu Lissu, chief opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in 2017, has had to flee the country after calling for protests against the election results; this in the midst of reports that at least 150 opposition leaders and members have been arrested since 27 October, with at least 18 remaining in custody. The frequency of abductions and/or forced disappearances has ticked up significantly since Magufuli came to power.


Economic growth has been sclerotic under Magufuli’s rule as he continues to be suspicious of the private sector and insists on white elephant megaprojects such as the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project that the country cannot afford. GDP per capita growth initially fell to 3% in 2015 (from 3.6% the year before) before recovering to 3.7% the following year. It has since fallen to 2.7%.

Magufuli came to the presidency from a weak base within the CCM – the liberation movement of Julius Nyerere – and is working hard to purge elites from within his ruling coalition who would otherwise ensure some degree of power-sharing. There is every reason to expect that Magufuli will attempt to clinch a third term in office, which would violate the constitution. He would join a long list of those who long ago eschewed term limits, a fundamental governance limit on executive power. A fundamental problem is not only that autocratic rule tends to result in misery and squalor for the majority, but that governance-dismantling autocrats seem to spur each other on across borders.

Zambia’s elections are set for 2021, and President Edgar Lungu appears to be taking a leaf out of the Magufuli playbook but with some variety to spice up the mix, drawing on Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwean script too. It appears that his strategy for rigging the elections is to amend the constitution to allow coalition formation (instead of a runoff second ballot between the top two candidates) in the case of no candidate winning more than 50% of the vote. He brought this infamous “Bill 10” to parliament at the end of October but it failed (though by a margin of only 6 votes). At least this strategy indicates that Lungu is scared of losing the popular vote and does not have Magufuli-like power to simply rig the election to an arbitrary winning proportion of his pre-selected choice.

The opposition has a strong likelihood of winning the election, though Hakainde Hichilema – the leader of the opposition – is undoubtedly keen to avoid more jail time at the hands of Lungu’s trumped-up charges (as has happened before). Analysts expect that Lungu, on failing to win Bill 10, will now simply abolish the current voters’ register and create a new one more favourable to his prospects. The graph below indicates a surge of violence around the 2016 elections that saw Lungu gain a second term in office. As Natasha Chilundika has written over at Democracy in Africa, we really need to avoid a repetition of this come 2021.


Slightly further afield in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. Still going strong, according to scholar Moses Khisa, Museveni has “run roughshod over important constitutional and institutional safeguards, checks and balances that were enshrined in what was a relatively progressive and liberal [1995] constitution”. Museveni is edging in on the 38-year rule exercised by Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and the 37-year reign by Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (both upended by their own ruling coalitions in 2017). Museveni’s assault on democracy began in 2003 with an eradication of constitutional term limits.

In addition to subverting apparently democratic institutions to advance authoritarian ends (by co-opting and corrupting the judiciary, for instance), he has also used external security threats as a cover under which to criminalise otherwise legitimate political activities. Museveni has had Kizza Besigye, his main opposition, arrested more than 1,000 times. A period of relative calm prevailed between 2007 and 2013, but violence against citizens has been on the rise, with incidents this year alone matching the 2006 data. The prospect of commercial oil revenues will further embolden Museveni’s autocratic stranglehold through enabling him to distribute patronage to a carefully selected circle of insiders and repress outsiders.


On the subject of Mugabe and dos Santos, their removal tells an important story. Autocrats who successfully consolidate power are almost always only removed by an internal coup or death in office. Very few in contemporary history have been upended by democratic forces. The risk of further autocratic consolidation is, therefore, immediately at hand. In Russia, Joseph Stalin’s death did not suddenly usher in democratic rule. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold over the ruling coalition in Russia today is evidence enough to show that new autocrats are likely to gain ascendancy and the fight for democracy to take root requires far more than the removal of one autocrat. It requires the slow, hard work of establishing governance institutions that respect the rule of the people by the people.

In both Zimbabwe and Angola, new autocrats have arisen. Mnangagwa and Lourenco respectively came to power through removing their long-standing leaders who had placed family members ahead of party loyalists, threatening their access to power and rents. One may have expected that some kind of power-sharing mechanism would be re-established in both Zanu-PF and the MPLA respectively, but there is little cause for optimism on the basis of the current evidence. Both incumbents enjoy vast access to resource wealth, again enabling the distribution of rents to a select circle of loyalists and careful elimination of internal and external threats to their rule.

Citizen attempts to protest against grand corruption in Zimbabwe around July this year resulted in a rapid rise in disappearances, abductions, torture and arrests – these have not yet been captured in the data below, but the graph still paints a terrifying picture of the militarised regime’s willingness to exercise repression to prevent any accountability. With elections set for 2023, we can either expect to see further violence escalation or an indefinite postponement of elections altogether.


A similar pattern emerges from Angola, with violence against citizens increasing again in the aftermath of the 2017 elections that saw Lourenco come to power through a rigged election. Unlike Magufuli’s CCM, though, the MPLA chose a winning figure of nearer to 60% than 80%.


For all one might say about the Trumpian episode in US politics and its dangerous flirtation with autocracy, the fact is that the vote matters in the US and Trump is out (or at least probably will be with Republicans now also losing patience with his intransigence). Americans have exercised their voice. Moreover, no matter whether one resonates with Kamala Harris’s political views, it is a significant feat that an African-American woman has ascended to the White House (and the first woman vice-president in US history) despite so much underlying racial tension in the country.

It is easy to be despondent about the deep structural divides that threaten to disrupt the US democratic equilibrium, but the fact that it has stood firm should encourage us to war against the proliferating autocratic threats to democracy in many African countries. Of course, the continent is not without hope, and the general trend is arguably positive. But it would be amiss of us to ignore the warning signs in Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, not to mention Ethiopia (in which the risk of a full-blown civil war escalates daily), the DRC, Nigeria and Mozambique. Mozambique, in the context of poor governance, deep local grievances and a poverty trap, is fertile soil for the rise of violent extremism. It’s an explosive cocktail that risks spilling over into neighbouring countries.


One recent light in these otherwise dark trajectories, though, is Malawi. Small and poor, for sure, the country is wracked by a history of corruption and extensive poverty. Nonetheless, when Lazarus Chakwera came to power earlier in 2020, in the midst of a global Covid-19 pandemic, he showed that it is possible for the judiciary to stand firm against an incumbent executive bent on staying in power and for the people to vote that president out in an election re-run. This should be celebrated loudly, if cautiously, and remind us that it all starts with governance.

As Dr Grieve Chelwa has quipped, SCOTUS might do well to cite the Malawian court case should Trump successfully get to the Supreme Court over his allegation that the US election results were rigged. We should never give up in our quest to build governance institutions that prevent the abuse of power and give the people a voice.


Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research & Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.

Citizens tired of being played for a fool

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the eulogy during the funeral service of South African anti-apartheid figure Andrew Mlangeni in Soweto, South Africa, on July 29, 2020. – Mlangeni, 95, was the last surviving Rivonia trialist, spending more than quarter of a century imprisoned on Cape Town’s notorious Robben island before his release in 1989. (Photo by Jerome Delay / POOL / AFP)

There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” We have former United States president George W Bush to thank for this misconstrued adage. This is the state that we South Africans find ourselves in regarding some government officials’ attitude and behaviour towards the citizenry; those who have been caught have transgressed the best interests of good governance.

The recent misuse of a state aircraft to carry an ANC delegation to Zimbabwe is a case in point. The delegation was led by ANC secretary general Ace Magashule to discuss the economic, social and political crises in Zimbabwe. July saw anti-government protests in that country, to which the state responded by arresting journalists and opposition figures. This prompted international condemnation and calls for the South African government to intervene.

President Cyril Ramaphosa sent former parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete and former ministers Sydney Mufamadi and Ngoako Ramatlhodi in August to “engage the government of Zimbabwe and relevant stakeholders to identify possible ways in which South Africa can assist Zimbabwe”. But this was not to be. Zanu-PF did not invite any other organisations to “engage with” the South African delegation. This drew criticism from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and others who were excluded from the talks.

A second South African delegation saw the ANC and Zanu-PF holding discussions at party to party level. The ANC delegation included senior ANC leaders such as Lindiwe Zulu, the minister of social development. They arrived in Harare on 8 September, having hitched a ride with Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who was making an official trip to Zimbabwe on a South African Air Force National (SAAF) plane.

The South African National Defence Union defended the minister’s decision to offer her ANC colleagues a lift in a SAAF jet, saying that we are living in unique circumstances under lockdown. The defence department said the ANC delegation’s trip just happened to coincide with the minister’s official trip and there was nothing more to it. But, have people’s expectations of government accountability dropped so low that such explanations suffice? I unpack relevant questions and events regarding the infamous trip to Zimbabwe that require clarity.

ANC accountability

When Magashule was asked if the party had improperly used state resources to conduct ANC business, he promptly responded: “No”. A short while later he changed his tune and said the ANC would pay back the costs incurred. This change of heart maybe him realising that the delegation did indeed abuse state resources. But it was probably an attempt to try to do damage control after the public outcry.

Lindiwe Zulu

In Chapter 6 of the document Guide for Members of the Executive, under the section International Travel, clause 1.3 states: “Ministers and deputy ministers should approach the president in writing to request approval for the intended visit and in the event of a planned official visit abroad, such request should be at least two weeks prior to departure. Such a request, in the case of a minister, should be accompanied by a request for the appointment of an acting minister.”

Did Zulu travel in her personal capacity as an ANC leader or not? Either way she would have had to seek approval from the president to appoint an acting minister, which would have meant her inclusion in the delegation would have been discussed even if she was going in her own capacity. It is strange that her inclusion in the delegation can be written off as a mere oversight.

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula

Newly appointed Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (R) is sworn in by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng at Sefako Makgato Presidential Guesthouse on May 30, 2019 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)

The minister was on an official trip for which the president had given permission and for which she was entitled to use an SAAF aircraft.

Is it not natural to assume she would have had a discussion with either the president or her husband, Charles Nqakula, who is the national security adviser to the president, about the purpose of her visit and who she would ferry to Zimbabwe?

Misuse of an SAAF jet

In Chapter 7 of the government handbook, clause 1.2 states: “Air transport provided by the South African Air Force or any other government department may not be used by members for party political engagements, unless such transport enables the member concerned to fulfil important official engagements before or after the party political engagements.”

This is probably the reason the president found it was “an error of judgment to use the plane to convey a political party delegation”.

It is puzzling that as the president of the ANC, he would not have been kept abreast of the developments regarding the delegation to Zimbabwe.

And it seems fair to assume there would be some liaising between the ANC officials and officials in the presidency regarding the business of international relations.

International travel

South Africa’s ports of entry were closed under Covid-19 regulations, except for those designated by the minister of home affairs to undertake (a) the transportation of fuel cargo and goods; and (b) humanitarian operations, repatriations, evacuations, medical emergencies, movements for diplomatic and international organisations and staff and other exceptions.

It is unclear which ministry gave official permission for the trip. In terms of the lockdown restrictions the ministry of transport authorises travel out of the country. When questioned about authorisation, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula did not commit to an answer but rather stated that because the delegation travelled in a SAAF jet, it did not need permission because the air force “controls the skies”.

Quarantine restrictions

An ANC statement on 15 September stated: “We profusely humble ourselves where we went wrong during the lockdown and will reimburse the government for the costs incurred on behalf of our delegation. Our delegation is under quarantine in line with our lockdown regulations.” But the Sunday Times reported that Magashule insisted he did not believe the delegation had abused state resources. Is the statement not a hollow apology perpetuating the sense of foolery to which we have become so accustomed?

The report further stated that at least two members of the delegation — Zulu and former minister Nomvula Mokonyane — did not go into the stipulated 10-day self-isolation period required under lockdown regulations after international travel.


Ramaphosa issued Mapisa-Nqakula with a formal reprimand. He imposed a three-month salary sacrifice, starting from 1 November, which will be paid into the Solidarity Fund that supports the country’s response to the pandemic. And he told her to ensure the ANC reimburses the state for the cost of the flight.

Although Ramaphosa’s swift action is commendable, two points require clarity:

l It was a long while before an amount was set for how much the ANC must pay back. It has since been established that the repayment will be R105 545.56. But the question is: if the ANC does pay their share of the cost of the flight, does it mean a political party has subsidised the government’s official business activities?

l Although Mapisa-Nqakula will lose three months’ salary we should not be overly empathetic. The minister will not face the realities so many South Africans have to deal with, including the fear of losing their homes. According to Chapter 8 of the handbook under the section Accommodation, she will still enjoy the benefits of living in her official residence at no cost. The “punishment” for breaking Covid rules is divorced from the deprivations faced by most South Africans.


The president said the minister’s error of judgment was not in keeping with the responsibilities of a minister. He found that Mapisa-Nqakula:

  • Did not “act … in the best interest of good governance”, as required by the code for executive members;
  • Failed to adhere to legal prescripts warranting care in use of state resources; and
  • Acted “in a way that is inconsistent with [her] position” as required by the executives’ guide.

For any society, it is important that officials are held accountable when they transgress the principles of good governance. It is also important that the punishment meted out will act as a deterrent for future transgressions, otherwise the foolery will continue.

South Africans should expect more accountability from government officials. If not, we have ourselves to blame and the correct version of the adage will ring true: “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”.

This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian here


Craig Moffat, PhD is the Head of Programme: Governance Delivery and Impact for Good Governance Africa’s National Security Programme. He has more than 17 years of practical experience working for government institutions and multilateral organisations. He was previously employed by the South African Foreign Service, where he worked extensively at identifying and analysing security threats towards South Africa as well as the southern Africa region. Previously, he was the political advisor for the Pretoria Regional Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stellenbosch University.

Shadows over Sunshine City

Harare: wetlands

Land invasions and illegal development threaten the source of water to Zimbabwe’s capital

Residents of Glen View township queue for water at a borehole as the city’s municipal water treatment facilities close in Harare, September 2019 Photo: AFP

Once referred to as the “Sunshine City” – not only because the sun shines on Harare most days of the year, but because of its cleanliness and orderliness – Zimbabwe’s capital city has over the years lost its glamour and beauty. The sun is still shining in Harare, but the beauty and orderliness have long disappeared. The days of uninterrupted water and electricity supplies have become a distant memory; streetlights have disappeared in most suburbs, the well-maintained treelined streets have been replaced with potholed roads, while  flowing  sewage  is now a common sight in most high- density suburbs.

Harare was a model city in  the 1980s and 1990s, with the once popular First Street being the epitome of the central business district’s beauty. The street boasted expensive boutiques and prominent departmental stores, as well as well-maintained pavements, water fountains, flowers and trees. Now it is a pale shadow of its former glorious self. Moreover, just as the city has lost its glitz and glamour, the expansive network of wetlands around the city is disappearing. Harare is built on a wetland and actually sits on its own catchment area.

Environmentalists, water rights activists and human rights campaigners believe the city’s future is under threat because of both the legal and illegal use of the wetlands. In recent years politically connected land barons have invaded and allocated land – including wetlands – to home seekers. City of Harare (CoH) officials have also allocated land, or approved development and the commercial abstraction of water from the wetlands, in violation of the law.

With Zimbabwe in economic turmoil and many people losing their jobs as companies fold, the invasion of wetlands for agricultural purposes has also become pronounced, threatening their existence. A report by a special committee chaired by Councillor Charles Joshua Nyatsuro on commercial land sales and leases in the City of Harare, dated 24 June 2019, prepared for the mayor of Harare, Hebert Gomba, and made available  to  Africa in Fact, highlighted the widespread development on wetlands, including protected sites:

“Harare is in and around the headwater wetlands of its catchment basin at the very beginning of the Manyame (Marimba, Mukuvisi and Gwebi Rivers) and the Mazowe River systems. Greater Harare  lies within  the source of its water,” the report reads. “Some of these wetlands are protected by the Ramsar Convention. The Government Gazette 380 of 2013 declares 26 wetlands in Harare as protected areas. The committee through field visits and in-depth interviews identified 32 areas designated as wetlands where illegal development is taking place. We find therefore that there is massive development on several sites.”

The committee, which also included residents’ association leaders, found that there “is no single activity or initiative in the last three years to protect wetlands in CoH”, adding “this is a serious concern and threatens the city’s water system.” On threats to wetlands, the committee concluded that: “By far the biggest threat to wetlands is unregulated developments (squatter camps and land barons) and illegally approved developments on wetlands by private developers and the City of Harare. The City of Harare has allocated land on wetlands.”

A commission of inquiry into the sale of state land in and around Zimbabwe’s urban areas since 2005, chaired by Justice Tendai Uchena, last year exposed vote-buying by ruling Zanu- PF politicians who  illegally grabbed and parcelled out state land, including wetlands, to lure votes. More than 100 people, among them prominent politicians, were implicated in the alleged grab and sale of state land in Harare or corruptly allocating themselves stands. Among those are former first lady Grace Mugabe, former women affairs, gender and development minister Nyasha Chikwinya and former local government minister Ignatius Chombo, as well as several legislators and high-ranking government officials.

The most notable project ion Harare’s wetlands in recent years is the construction of Long Cheng Plaza Mall in Belvedere at a cost of more than $200 million. Construction of the mall by Chinese company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Corporation – which is also in a diamond mining partnership with Zimbabwe’s military – was allowed to go ahead, despite protests from residents, legislators and the Environmental Management Agency. The mall was officially opened in 2014 and opened to the public in 2015. Former Mabvuku-Tafara legislator James Maridadi fought hard in parliament to have the mall demolished, arguing its existence disturbed the natural ecosystem of the capital city’s water supply.

In 2018, Maridadi proposed a motion in parliament to have wetlands preserved, saying water problems in Harare and other cities were a result of the destruction of natural water reservoirs. Speaking in parliament, he said: “One typical example is the Long Cheng Plaza in Belvedere. Madam Speaker, the Long Cheng Plaza sits in the heart of wetlands in Zimbabwe. What that plaza has done is to compromise all underground water to the south and the east of that plaza. If you want to sink a borehole in Belvedere, you must sink beyond 70 metres because of that plaza.”

Development on Harare’s  wetlands is occurring despite the fact that Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971) through which member states committed to maintaining the ecological character of wetlands and to plan for their wise and sustainable use. Zimbabwe also has provisions for  the protection of wetlands under the Environmental Management Act (Cap 20;27), Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 on Environmental Management (Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems Protection) Regulations and Government Gazette 380 of 2013. The Town and Country Planning Act, Urban Councils Act and Traditional Leaders Act, also criminalise the destruction of wetlands.

Deputy Mayor Enock Mupamawonde speaks on the capital’s water woes, September 2019 Photo: AFP

In addition, Section 73 of the Constitution protects environmental rights and states that the environment should be protected for the benefit of future generations. Section 73(b) specifically highlights that everyone must work to prevent ecological degradation and promote conservation. According to the Ramsar Convention, wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life.They occur where the water table is at or near the surface of the land or where the surface is covered by water.

Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Act 20:27 defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peat-land or water whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including riparian land adjacent to the wetland”.

Wetlands filter water naturally by breaking down harmful pollutants, including chemicals, separating them from the water and using them as fertiliser for the vegetation growing there. They are natural sewage systems as they filter water and the water running out of them into rivers is clear and purified. In times of heavy rain, wetlands act as holders of water, like sponges, and prevent flooding in their areas. They absorb and purify water that would otherwise be mostly lost as run-off. The water absorbed throughout the rainy season is slowly released into rivers and streams in the dry seasons.

Wetlands also help to recharge the  water  table. In addition, they are the habitat for hundreds of species at a time. Government and CoH officials acknowledge the importance of  wetlands and the fact that the future of Harare is under threat because of their destruction. For instance, speaking at a wetland’s indaba in Harare in February, Gomba admitted that irresponsible behaviour and political pressure to settle people on wetlands has contributed to the pollution of Lake Chivero, the city’s major source of water.

“Lake Chivero is now heavily polluted, largely through human action,” he said. “It should have  been  decommissioned a long time ago, but we are still using it because there is no other source of water. The problems of water in Harare also stem from the destruction of wetlands through illegal settlements and farming activities.” He urged politicians to desist from encouraging people to settle on wetlands, ch which could only result in less water for the city. During commemorations to mark World Wetlands Day in Harare in February, the environment minister, Mangaliso Ndlovu, told journalists that land  barons were responsible for the illegal settlements in the city. Infrastructure development through commercial and housing construction had  turned  Harare’s wetlands “into a concrete jungle”. He  warned that by 2040, the wetlands may have disappeared.

Selestino Chari, the project manager of Harare Wetlands Trust, told Africa in Fact that Harare residents were paying the price for the unsustainable and illegal exploitation of wetlands. “As we speak, Lake Chivero is not gaining water and the water entering the lake is heavily polluted. “He added that the water entering the lake was no longer being purified by the wetlands. The Harare city council now needed 12 chemicals to treat water, when it had only needed one or two in 1992, he told Africa in Fact.

Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch, told Africa in Fact that the lack of appreciation of the value and importance of wetlands by residents, CoH and government officials was jeorpadising Harare’s future. Harare had run out of land for residential purposes, so politicians were using the few remaining open spaces to advance their political fortunes. “When faced with the   question of addressing the housing needs of people or protecting wetlands, there is a tendency for council and government officials to tilt towards what they see as the immediate need, which is housing,” he said.

Harare was now facing “massive water crises” as a direct result of the depletion of wetlands. Underground water has been hugely depleted. “I was speaking to an organisation that is drilling boreholes and they told me that the water table had been between 30 and 40 metres [underground] in many suburbs in Harare, but now it is between 70-90 metres,” he said. From a human rights point of view, the unsustainable use of wetlands has contributed to the violation of people’s right to water, and endangering citizens. Dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, requires water for good hygiene.

As Mavhinga put it: “Without water, the right to health cannot be guaranteed.” Fiona Iliff, a projects lawyer for the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights’ (ZLHR) Access to Justice Unit, has fought numerous court battles with the CoH and private developers to preserve wetlands. She says there is an urgent need for all wetlands in Harare to be mapped and gazetted as protected areas. In a 2018 document titled ‘Legislation and the Protection of Harare’s Wetlands: Procedures and Problems’,  ZLHR said the Environmental Management Act – the main law protecting the environment – is “mostly substantively sound, but procedurally weak” because enforcement mechanisms do not give wetlands sufficient importance and protection.

ZLHR has recommended that an independent Environment Commission be established, that the National Environmental Council be re- established, and that an Environment Tribunal with punitive jurisdiction to investigate environmental law violations also be established. “The tribunal should be  composed of legally trained commissioners with expertise in environmental issues and have punitive jurisdiction,” ZLHR said. “Legislation should provide that the default position is that development must be stopped once legal proceedings challenging construction on prima facie wetland have been initiated and the onus should lie on the developer proving that the development should proceed.”

ZLHR said provisions of the Ramsar Convention should be incorporated into Zimbabwe’s municipal laws, while all wetlands should be mapped with expert input and their territorial footprint legislated. Wetlands should not be treated solely “as land” but also as water resources, the ZLHR said. “Legislative provisions protecting water resources, and proscribing the private ownership of water, should specifically be stated as applying to wetlands. The organisation said legislation must clarify that CoH cannot grant development permits on wetlands, “whether conditionally or otherwise, without compliance with the provisions designed to protect wetlands”. If Harare’s future is to be guaranted, environmentalists say, government and city officials should stop paying lip service to the protection of the city’s wetlands.


Owen Garare is news editor at the business weekly Zimbabwe Independent. He has previously worked for two national daily newspapers, NewsDay and the Chronicle. He is based in Harare.

#ZimbabweanLivesMatter: Can South Africa get it right this time?

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced during a press briefing, that his government has postponed independence day celebrations and discouraged locals from travelling to all affected countries, even though the country has no detected cases so far of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Harare on March 17, 2020. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)


Amid a spiralling economic and political crisis, President Emmerson Mnangagwa addressed the people of Zimbabwe on Tuesday 4 August. His speech, although sudden – four days after his government’s violent  clampdown on the July 31 citizen protests – was highly anticipated. There may have been a desperate hope in some sections of the bruised citizenry that the president would, perhaps in the remotest of ways, acknowledge their suffering and hint at atoning for the state’s brutality. However, the ‘crocodile’ neither acknowledged the legitimacy of the widespread grievances against his leadership nor took any responsibility for bringing the country to this precipice. Instead, President Mnangagwa argued that his administration “has been undermined by the divisive politics of the opposition, sanctions, cyclones, droughts and now COVID19”, and blamed widespread protests on “a few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors.” The President’s speech exposed a tone deaf and intransigent government at war with its long-suffering citizens.

For the past two decades Zimbabwean citizens have engaged in diverse, valiant efforts to use every legally available avenue to expedite democratic reform. Many Zimbabwean citizens have made heroic efforts to shed light on the gross corruption and mismanagement that has characterised ZANU-PF’s rule and created a staggering man-made disaster. They are currently caught between a regime willing to go to any lengths to crackdown on dissent, the need to navigate the day-to-day difficulties of securing precarious livelihoods, and the fear of contracting COVID-19. In the face of an unrelenting regime and rising from the crushed hopes of 31 July 2020 protests, Zimbabwean citizens have grafted the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign onto ‘the energy and anger of the global’ outcry that #BlackLivesMatter. Can the South African government, whose President has taken  an unequivocal stance on #BlackLivesMatter continue on an indeterminate posture on the plight of its neighbour’s black lives? Their economic and political fate, as aptly observed by SAIIA CEO Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, is intertwined with its own and that of the region.

South Africa is ideally placed to push for change in Zimbabwe, with the two countries sharing many social, political, and economic ties. South Africa remains one of the country’s most important trading partners. Zimbabwe imports 40 percent of its total imports and exports 75 percent of its total exports to South Africa. However, despite the countries’ growing stake in each other’s fates, South Africa’s response to the deepening crisis across the Limpopo leaves much to be desired. Zimbabwe is now considered one of the four most food-insecure countries in the world, alongside Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. More than 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s 15.6 million people are considered food insecure. Around one in three children under 5 years old suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world at around 800 percent, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects economic contraction of 10.4 percent in 2020, following a 12.8 percent contraction in 2019.

The healthcare system has collapsed, and every day Zimbabwean citizens face persistent fuel shortages and rolling blackouts. The number of Zimbabweans using illegal entry points along the Limpopo River to access medical services and basic commodities has dramatically increased in recent weeks,  heightening the chances of cross-border transmission of COVID-19 in both directions. As many desperate Zimbabweans will make the dangerous journey south, the South African government is poorly prepared to deal with an escalating migrant crisis. The country is wrestling with its own record unemployment levels. Increasingly, regional integration and the flow of people, commodities, knowledge and information means that insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere, challenging the principle of non-interference which has guided foreign relations between southern African states and become institutionalized in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Decades of  non-interference, liberation politics, and ‘quiet diplomacy’ on behalf of the ANC has simply allowed a political and military elite in Zimbabwe to plunder the country’s resources, undermine democracy, and create an economic crisis with implications for the wider Southern African region.

A more urgent and concrete stance is imperative. It is befitting therefore that after what had seemed like another bout of silence, the Government of South Africa, through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) ‘noted with concern the reports related to human rights violations in the Republic of #Zimbabwe’. However, from the Mbeki to Zuma administrations, this political gesturing is well-worn. Building on #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, a campaign that has attracted resounding regional and international intervention calls from ordinary citizens, celebrities, politicians, diplomats and multi-lateral institutions alike, it is now ‘easier for SA and the SADC to begin a meaningful engagement with all stakeholders’. But will they? South Africa in particular has an opportunity as a strategic arbiter to harness all these voices across multiple platforms that can begin the work of persuading stakeholders to come to the negotiating table. It is time for the South African government to boldly break out of the ‘liberation war-pact’ cocoon and stand with the citizens of Zimbabwe.

DIRCO’s emphasis on government to government engagement, reported to have been initiated through a telephonic call between Dr. Naledi Pandor and her Zimbabwean counterpart Dr. Sibusiso Moyo, seems to thwart any hopes for including citizen voices. Dr. Pandor’s non-committal reference to ‘South Africa’s readiness to assist if requested’ does not imbue confidence of a radical departure from previous administrations. President Mnangagwa’s 4 August speech and Government Spokesperson Nick Mangwana’s press release (two days later) declaring reports of human rights violations as ‘false’ are not a request for assistance. South Africa now needs to build the diplomatic muscle required to crack through Harare’s hardball defence. Through the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign, the Zimbabwean citizens’ request for assistance has been unambiguously echoed and clearly endorsed regionally and globally. As well noted by the Executive Director of Good Governance Africa, Chris Maroleng, ‘…it is incumbent on…especially…government… in South Africa to stand up and basically call on the government of Zimbabwe to cease and desist from such anti-democratic behaviour.’ South Africa has a unique opportunity to get it right this time. Many are ready to assist.

This article originally appeared in Business Day.


Sikhululekile Mashingaidze currently serves as Senior Researcher in the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa. Being engaged as a part-time enumerator for Mass Public Opinion Institute’s diversity of research projects during her undergraduate years ushered her into and nurtured her passion for the governance field. She has worked with Habakkuk Trust, Centre for Conflict Resolution(CCR-Kenya), Mercy Corps Zimbabwe and Action Aid International Zimbabwe, respectively. This has, over the years, enriched her grassroots and national level governance projects’ implementation and management experience. Her academic research interests are in the field of genocide studies with a commitment to deepen her understanding of girls and women’s experiences, their agency in reconstituting everyday life and their inclusion in peace-building and transitional justice processes. Socially she has a keen commitment in supporting girls education, women’s economic empowerment and the fulfilment of their equitable and sustainable development in Africa’s underserved, often hard to reach communities. She enjoys writing and telling the stories of navigating everyday life.

Zimbabwe: Have the lessons been learned? The signs aren’t good

Public reaction to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s tweet announcing the death of Lands and Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri on July 29 summarised the polarised nature of the Zimbabwean society, while also serving as a barometer of the effectiveness of government policies in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although Mnangagwa did not immediately reveal the cause of death, word had already gone around that Shiri – a powerful former head of the air force and the former commander of the infamous 5th Brigade which is estimated to have killed about 20,000 civilians in the Gukurahundi massacre in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions in the early 1980s – had succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On July 31, Mnangagwa confirmed Shiri had indeed died of Covid-19, after bizarrely visiting his family brandishing test results. Meanwhile, some family members questioned the claim, and told the media that they suspected that Shiri had been poisoned. Shiri’s death shook the corridors of power and resulted in several ministers and high-ranking government officials going into self-isolation after coming into contact with him.

Shiri – a powerful former head of the air force and the former commander of the infamous 5th Brigade which is estimated to have killed about 20,000 civilians in the Gukurahundi massacre in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions in the early 1980s – succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the president praised the departed minister, Zimbabweans responded by criticising government corruption and reported looting Covid-19 funds and demanding working hospitals. A response from @libyPatendero read: “Build hospitals (rather) than promoting corruption through Command Agriculture. Covid-19 is the greatest equaliser.”

Command Agriculture is a support scheme for farmers introduced by government and was overseen by then vice president, Mnangagwa, who chaired the Cabinet Committee on Food and Nutrition. It was introduced at the beginning of the 2016-17 farming season to ensure food security. Joseph Made was the agriculture minister at the time.

Under the controversial programme implemented through Sakunda Holdings owned by Mnangagwa’s advisor Kuda Tagwirei, beneficiary farmers, among them ministers and senior government officials, army commanders and judges received farming inputs and implements. In 2018, Sakunda Holdings failed to properly account for close to $3 billion, according to Auditor-General Mildred Chiri’s audit report for that year, subsequently corroborated by Lands and Agriculture ministry senior officials in parliament.

Shiri’s death shook the corridors of power and resulted in several ministers and high-ranking government officials going into self-isolation after coming into contact with him.

Responding to the president’s tweet, other Zimbabweans openly celebrated the minister’s death, citing the role he played in the Gukurahundi massacres; Shiri has been as “one of the key architects of the Gukurahundi mass executions in the early 1980s”. Other respondents said Shiri was a typical example of the country’s powerful political and military elite, which had subjected Zimbabweans to all sorts of human rights violations.

The state of decay of the country’s health care system has certainly been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic – and with it, another glaring inequality. It is common knowledge that the members of the ruling elite hardly ever use local hospitals. In an emergency they might use an expensive private hospital, but only until they can fly out to a better-equipped foreign hospital.

When former President Robert Mugabe died on 6 September last year, he was in Singapore, where he had been treated periodically for over a decade. Mnangagwa was treated in South Africa after a poisoning scare in 2017, while Vice President Constantino Chiwenga is a frequent visitor to China, where he has been receiving treatment since last year. Chiwenga has also been treated in South Africa and India.

While the president praised the departed minister, Zimbabweans responded by criticising government corruption and reported looting Covid-19 funds and demanding working hospitals.

Other cabinet ministers and high ranking Zanu PF officials have shown a similar preference for costly overseas treatment. Co-Vice President Kembo Mohadi and Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri were treated in South Africa after being caught in a bomb blast in 2018. Mohadi also visited South Africa several times last year for treatment. Indeed, at one time, both Zimbabawe’s vice presidents were hospitalised in the neighbouring country at the same time.

Popular opinion regarding Chiri’s death reflects the views expressed in the responses to the president’s tweet.  “Covid-19 knows no elite or poor person. This pandemic is a killer, [and] it should remind the likes of Mnangagwa that they are mortal,” said Miriam Muchongwe (33) a vendor resident in Mbare, a high density suburb in Harare.

She was happy, she said, that limits on international travel meant that powerful people could not easily fly out of the country for treatment. “I may sound like a callous person, but I hope the pandemic hits those at the top hard. Zimbabweans are not stupid. They demand that the government should invest tax-payers’ money in hospitals and other social needs, instead of funding their luxurious lifestyles.”

Responding to the president’s tweet, other Zimbabweans openly celebrated the minister’s death, citing the role he played in the Gukurahundi massacres.

Zimbabweans have expressed their disappointment on various platforms – health care, industry and trade unions, among others – at the containment measures adopted by government to stop the spread of the pandemic since the first case was reported on 20 March.

Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary general Norman Matara told me that Covid-19 had brought many lessons with it. “Basically, as a country we were not prepared for Covid-19. Pandemics and natural disasters don’t give warnings, so it is important for countries to have strong systemic building blocks for health systems.”

Zimbabwe has been shown to be weak in all six system components as recommended by the World Health Organisation, Matara said: leadership and governance, service delivery, health system financing, health workforce, medical products, vaccines and technologies and health information systems.

“Covid-19 knows no elite or poor person. This pandemic is a killer, [and] it should remind the likes of Mnangagwa that they are mortal” – Miriam Muchongwe

“As a result, the positive policy steps taken by the government to contain the pandemic, such as introducing a national lockdown, equipping hospitals and isolation centres, decentralising Covid-19 treatment and so on, failed. You can’t neglect hospitals for decades and then attempt to equip them in six weeks. When the pandemic struck, Wilkins Isolation Hospital didn’t have plug points, or a single ventilator.”

Although Covid-19 treatment had been decentralised, most provincial hospitals lacked resources such as beds, ventilators and even personnel, including ICU nurses and anaesthesiologists, while some districts were unable to transfer patients due to a lack of ambulances. The same lack of resources has seen the government failing to roll out Covid-19 tests, with many Covid-19 deaths being discovered only during routine post mortems.

One vital lesson from the pandemic, Matara said, was that the Zimbabwean government should adhere to the Abuja Declaration, in which African leaders committed to allocate 15% of their annual budgets to improving the health sector.

Zimbabwe has been shown to be weak in all six system components as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

In an effort to stem the spread of the virus, government declared a 21-day total lockdown on 30 March, which was extended by two weeks before being gradually eased. Meanwhile, according to the official figures, Covid-19 cases are on the rise. As of 18 August there were some 5,378, with 141 deaths reported and 4,105 recoveries.

However, it is not clear how accurate these figures are. No comparative statistics for Zimbabwe are available. Across Africa, though, the total number of Covid-19 cases is much higher than official numbers suggest, according to the International Rescue Committee. The lack of data may be “due to a variety of factors – such as testing capacity, health infrastructure devastated by conflict, and stigma,” the organisation says.

The rapidly rising numbers raise the question of the effectiveness of the lockdown. Around the world, the primary aim of lockdowns has been to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed by cases of Covid-19. But Zimbabwe’s severely neglected health care system broke down very soon anyway. So, as Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) secretary general Japhet Moyo told me, the lockdown was pointless.

As of 18 August there were some 5,378, with 141 deaths reported and 4,105 recoveries.

The government also failed to provide effective social safety nets for citizens. Most people in the country are dependent on the informal sector for a living, and they were forced to continue informal trading activities despite lockdown regulations. There was also a lack of any effective public transport, as well as a shortage of staple foods such as mealie-meal, with the result that there were often long queues at bus terminuses and shopping centres. Crammed minibus taxis and long queues are concentrations of people, and the very opposite of physical distancing, which increases contagion risk. So it’s likely that enforcing the pointless lockdown has increased the infection rate.

Moreover, while the government had introduced a taskforce, chaired by Mohadi, to fight the pandemic, it had erred by not including a range of stakeholders, among them labour and business, in the taskforce’s deliberations, Moyo said. “It’s very unfortunate that our government does not believe in dialogue or inclusivity. On many occasions business and labour were caught by surprise by some Covid-19 measures and announcements. Consultations could have seen us all pulling together in the national interest. Going forward, the government must learn to consult.”

On 1 May, Mnangagwa announced a ZW$18 billion ($430 million at the time) Economic Rescue and Stimulus Package, “designed to scale-up production in all sectors of the economy in response to the adverse effects of Covid-19.” The amount would see ZW$6.1 billion going to stimulate agricultural production, ZW$3 billion to cover capital and operational expenses for the manufacturing sector, a ZW$1 billion credit support facility for the mining sector, ZW$500 million to support the tourism and hospitality industry and ZW$1 billion for the procurement of Covid-19 testing kits, PPEs and the purchase of drugs.

Across Africa, the total number of Covid-19 cases is much higher than official numbers suggest, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The ZCTU had asked information on disbursements during a Tripartite Negotiating Forum meeting involving government, labour and business on 14 July, Moyo said. However, they were told that the plan “remained an intention”.

In any case former finance minister Tendai Biti has said that the plan did not set aside enough money to save Zimbabwe’s ailing industries. At least $1 billion would be needed, he told the Zimbabwe Independent in mid-June. CZI President Henry Ruzvidzo concurred, describing the stimulus as “a modest amount given the challenges faced by industry” to the Zimbabwe Independent in the same article.

As noted in previous blogs in this series, even before the Covid-19 outbreak, Zimbabwe’s economy was hamstrung by a number of problems, among them a debilitating liquidity crunch, acute fuel and foreign currency shortages, currency volatility and low capacity utilisation as well as runaway inflation. Covid-19 has worsened the plight of Zimbabwe’s ailing industries while stretching its ill-equipped medical facilities and exposing the weakness in the health sector.

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, Zimbabwe’s economy was hamstrung by a number of problems, among them a debilitating liquidity crunch, acute fuel and foreign currency shortages, currency volatility and low capacity utilisation as well as runaway inflation.

As Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights’ Matara noted, major crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic seldom announce themselves, allowing time to plan. As we have seen around the world, the major difference between countries that have weathered the pandemic relatively well and those that haven’t has been the presence or absence of strong, capable institutions – in leadership, health care and research, among other areas.

It was clear from the beginning that decades of under-investment in health care would leave Zimbabwe totally unprepared for the pandemic. And as it turned out, public health care facilities at all levels were completely unable to cope.

Now other major crises are looming, with climate change at the top of the list. Some of my fellow blog writers in this series have mentioned the looming impact of climate change on Africa’s environments. Africa in Fact’s recent edition on the environment (July 2020), to which I contributed, looks at this in a number of African countries.

The warnings are clear. Also for Zimbabwe. Indeed, climate change is one crisis that is actually announcing itself. Much remains unpredictable, but we know quite a lot about its causes and likely impacts. Time will tell, though, if the message of the pandemic is loud and clear to Mnangagwa and his administration.


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Owen Gagare is the assistant editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, a weekly newspaper, covering business, politics and investigative stories. He has previously worked for NewsDay and the Chronicle. Owen has also written for the Mail and Guardian and has a passion for investigative and in-depth stories as well as human rights and governance issues. He is based in Harare, Zimbabwe.