In the 1980s, then American Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker wrote a book entitled High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighbourhood

The book outlined Crocker’s experiences in trying to bring peace to southern Africa, which at the time was a key proxy Cold War battleground. South African troops were fighting in Angola, supporting the rebel UNITA movement against the governing MPLA and its Soviet bloc allies, particularly Cuba. Namibia was also itching for independence, while there was widespread unrest in South Africa itself. The civil war in Mozambique between the governing Frelimo and rebel Renamo was still raging, with similar dynamics to the Angolan war.

Zimbabwe had also recently become independent, which changed the political and military dynamics in the region.

Significantly different

Today southern Africa is significantly different; there is majority rule in South Africa and Namibia, and Mozambique and Angola are at peace (although Mozambique still faces a jihadist insurgency in its north). Zimbabwe is also very different, no longer being a country of hope, but rather one of despair, and its economy continues to crumble, destroying any possibility of giving Zimbabweans a prosperous future.

Southern Africa is not as important as it once was, in geopolitical terms, but there is still jostling between the great powers for influence at the southern tip of Africa. 

But southern Africa is facing high noon again. There are elections in four southern African countries this year – South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Mozambique − in three of which there is at least some chance that the existing order could be upended.

A significant drawback in trying to envisage scenarios for what things could look like after the elections in these four countries is that only South Africa has a developed polling industry. Only in South Africa has there been any significant polling done. Of the other three countries, only in Botswana is there a publicly available poll and it doesn’t pass the smell test.

The result in South Africa will have the most bearing on the region. If the ANC forms a coalition with the EFF or the MK Party, or both, the South African economy will face serious headwinds, with implications for the rest of southern Africa, especially Namibia, which is part of the Common Monetary Area (CMA), with the Namibian dollar pegged on a 1:1 basis and the rand being legal tender.

Regional power

South Africa’s GDP dwarfs that of the other countries, unsurprisingly, given South Africa’s much bigger population. In 2022 South Africa’s economy was valued at US$360 billion, much higher than those for Namibia ($10 billion), Botswana ($18 billion) and Mozambique ($19 billion).

Any economic ructions in South Africa will have far-reaching effects for the region.

To paraphrase a famous saying: ‘Poor SADC, so close to South Africa, so far from God.’

In addition, South Africa could lose its place as the ‘warehouse’ of southern Africa if a ‘doomsday’ coalition comes to power. Landlocked countries in the region, which in the past relied on South Africa to import goods, have increasingly looked elsewhere for their logistical needs, particularly the ports of Walvis Bay and Maputo. A doomsday coalition would see South Africa’s logistical challenges only worsen, and countries in the region would have to look elsewhere to meet their needs.

We don’t need to go over the various potential permutations of South Africa’s electoral outcome − much ink has already been spilt on this by myself and others, and there is no need to rehash any of that here. But it is worth considering what may happen in the three other countries holding elections in southern Africa this year.

Winds of change

In Namibia the winds of change are blowing, too, but perhaps not as strongly as in South Africa. Namibia faces similar problems to those in South Africa, such as high levels of inequality and unemployment, and issues around empowerment and land.

And, as in South Africa, the dominant party in Namibia, the Swapo Party, is now facing challenges, although its rate of decline has not been as swift as the ANC’s.

While no polling has been done in Namibia, results of recent elections show that Swapo will likely not have it all its own way in this year’s election, scheduled for November.

In 2019 an independent candidate who had been a member of Swapo, Panduleni Itula, won nearly 30% of the vote in that year’s presidential election. This was easily the highest level of support ever garnered by an opposition candidate in a Namibian presidential election (unlike South Africa and Botswana, Namibians vote directly for the President, in addition to voting in separate legislative elections). The only other time an opposition presidential candidate won more than 20% of the vote was in Namibia’s first presidential election in 1994, when Mishake Muyongo of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance won nearly a quarter of the vote.

Though he stood as an independent in 2019, Itula will now be running on the ticket of a party he founded, the Independent Patriots for Change (IPC). 

Other election results show that Swapo’s grip on power could be loosening. In elections for regional councils in 2020, Swapo won less than 60% of the vote as an aggregate across the country. Itula’s IPC won nearly 20% of the vote. In the previous regional elections, in 2015, Swapo had won 83%. 

These regional elections were held alongside municipal elections, which saw Swapo lose control of swathes of municipalities, including the capital Windhoek.

While Swapo is likely to still win the legislative election (it won nearly two-thirds of the vote in 2019) it is likely to see its share of the vote shrink significantly. Furthermore, an upset in the Presidential election is not beyond the realms of possibility. Itula is up against Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, currently the country’s vice president. If elected, she will become Namibia’s first woman president.

By all accounts, she is a lacklustre candidate, lacking Itula’s energy and charisma. However, analysts in Namibia have raised concerns over some of Itula’s positions, and there have been indications that he has something of an authoritarian streak.

Happenings in Namibia will not have as much of an effect as to what happens in South Africa, simply because of its much smaller population and economy, but, like South Africa, Namibia could be entering a time of political uncertainty, where the power of a long-dominant party is finally broken. 


In Botswana things are likely less fluid than in either South Africa or Namibia. The Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has governed the country with a decent degree of success since independence in the late 1960s, and has never been seriously challenged at the ballot box.

Unlike South Africa and Namibia, which both use electoral systems based on proportional representation, Botswana uses the Westminster first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to elect its Parliament. This gives the BDP something of an advantage. In the last elections in 2019, it won just over 50% of the vote but 38 of the 57 seats then up for grabs. In 2014, it managed 46.5% of the vote (the only time it has won below 50% of the popular vote) but this was still enough to give it 37 of the 57 seats.

An Afrobarometer poll conducted in 2022 found that less than a quarter of respondents said they were planning to vote for the BDP, with nearly 40% saying they would vote for the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). Ian Khama, a former President and son of the country’s founding president, Seretse, has also said that he will be campaigning for the Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF). 

In addition, Botswana faces some of the same problems confronting South Africa, including high rates of unemployment and issues around infrastructure. However, despite this and growing dissatisfaction with the BDP, the party is likely to remain in power, as the opposition is split, and with the country’s FPTP system benefiting the BDP.

While Namibia and South Africa are entering periods where no single party dominates elections, Botswana is still some way from that. But developments in Botswana’s neighbours could galvanise the opposition and its voters. Change may be coming slower to Botswana than South Africa and Namibia, but it will come.

Less chance

Mozambique is the final southern African country to hold an election this year, with the election scheduled for October. Here, there is less chance of the opposition coming into government than in any of the other three. The governing Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo) has become increasingly authoritarian. It is likely that there was widespread cheating and rigging in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, and this was also the case in the 2023 local elections where credible information from independent observers showed that there had likely been rigging and cheating.

The government has also been heavy-handed in response to protests over election results, often using deadly force to quell protests.

There is no reason, unfortunately, to think that this year’s election in Mozambique is likely to be any different with little pressure from foreign or regional governments, or donors, on Frelimo to allow open and democratic contestation. 

The stakes are probably not as high in southern Africa today as they were in the 1980s, although the spectre of a leftist, populist coalition government in Pretoria may eventually cause as much disruption as an all-out civil war would have caused in South Africa back then. Such a government would act as a drag on the rest of the sub-continent and see the region slip back even further as an international backwater.

Of course, we do not know yet how much the status quo will change. Namibia could elect its first non-Swapo leader, while South Africa could be forced into its first post-apartheid national coalition. While incumbent parties are more likely to stay in power in Botswana and Mozambique than in the other two countries under discussion, more competitive democratic politics in South Africa and Namibia could act as a positive type of contagion in the region.

Politics in Southern Africa are now almost as uncertain and fluid as they were at any time since the 1980s. The type of ‘high noon’ being faced is different from that at the height of the Cold War, but nonetheless, it’s still high noon.

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.