Several southern African states are in the news for anti-corruption efforts. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa has established a special tribunal to expedite state efforts to track down ill-gotten gains. In Mozambique, the former chief of the intelligence service and the former president’s son have been arrested in connection with a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal. In Angola, which also witnessed the arrest of a former president’s son last year, two sitting members of National Assembly from the ruling party were recently indicted on charges relating to corruption.
These headlines are cheering to good governance advocates. However, in all three cases, the same party that held the reins of government when alleged corrupt practices occurred remains in power today. Southern Africa’s ruling parties are contorted in knots as they try to simultaneously protect their privileged position in the political and economic landscape while addressing the corruption that has corroded their popularity and integrity. The balancing act falls heavily on the shoulders of the region’s presidents, who must constantly calibrate how far to go in holding senior members of their own party to account, and to anticipate the invisible lines that, if crossed, would split the party or loosen their own grips on the party’s top spot.
Thus, President Ramaphosa’s special tribunal will deal with cases brought by the Special Investigating Unit, which in turn investigates those cases referred by the president. It is all part of a web of authorities that allows the president considerable discretion in determining who will and will not be held accountable for past misdeeds. It remains to be seen whether the Mozambique arrests were merely responses to international pressure, useful theater before October’s elections, or whether they will lead to convictions and, finally, a full accounting for the hidden loan scandal first exposed in 2016. Many of Angolan President João Lourenço’s reforms can be understood as moves to consolidate his power and break the hold of former President José Eduardo dos Santos’s old guard—whether the state will operate in a fundamentally more transparent way going forward remains an open question—although there are some encouraging signs.
Because the internal balancing act is so difficult, and so urgent, it is likely to consume most of the energy, attention, and political will of these leaders and their governments, with potentially far-reaching implications. Managing an anti-corruption drive as an internal party affair may mean missing an opportunity to strengthen democratic accountability in a country overall. Equally, as the Southern African Development Community (SADC)'s tepid response to crisis in Zimbabwe and fraudulent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo suggests, this delicate internal work leaves little appetite for bold strokes or clear regional leadership in foreign affairs.