In the early 2000s, elections across Latin America saw left-wing or centre-left parties voted into office.

This phenomenon, which saw leaders such Brazil’s Lula da Silva, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Chilean Ricardo Lagos, among others, coming to power, was dubbed the “pink tide” by political scientists. Pink was chosen to describe this occurrence because, while many of the parties voted into office leaned left and were democratic, they were not hard-core “Reds” or communists.

A similar phenomenon has been the various waves of democratisation that have swept the world. A “wave of democratisation” describes the phenomenon of a large number of countries turning to democracy over a fairly short period of time. The most recent of these waves was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union helped spark a veritable tsunami of democratisation, when countries in eastern Europe, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa moved away from authoritarianism.

South Africa was part of this wave, with the country moving away from racial autocracy to a non-racial (in theory) democracy.

But could Southern Africa see its own mini-“pink” wave and consolidation of democracy this year?


There is no need to talk about South Africa’s remarkable election at the end of May. Much ink has been spilled here and elsewhere on it. But could the end of ANC dominance in the country see something similar happen in the rest of our region?

Three of our neighbours also go to the polls this year – Mozambique, Botswana, and Namibia. All share some historical similarities, having been European colonies, with Namibia having been a South African colony for much of the 20th century. All have had varying experiences with democracy, with Namibia having its first multi-party election in the late 1980s, and Mozambique in 1994. Botswana has been a democracy since it gained independence from Britain in the 1960s.

However, the quality of democracy varies in the three countries. The Economist Intelligence Unit, the research arm of the titular magazine, ranks Namibia and Botswana as “flawed democracies”, while Mozambique is rated as “authoritarian”. (Countries fall into four categories – “full democracy”, “flawed democracy”, “hybrid regime”, and “authoritarian”). South Africa is rated as a “flawed democracy”.

Freedom House, which looks to promote democracy around the globe, also ranks countries into various categories – “free”, “partly free”, and “unfree”, and determines whether countries are electoral democracies – where elections are free and fair.

South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia are all ranked as “free” and as electoral democracies, while Mozambique is ranked as “partly free” and is not an electoral democracy, according to Freedom House.

The election in Mozambique is in any case already a foregone conclusion, with the governing Frelimo likely to retain power through a mixture of intimidation and vote- rigging, as it has done for most of the past 30 years.

Free and open

Things are different in Namibia and Botswana, which are free and open societies to a varying degree. But will what happened in South Africa have any impact on elections in those two countries?

I was in Namibia a week before the South African election, and the discussions I had with Namibians indicated that this democratic “contagion” could leak over the Orange River into the Namib. The thinking went that that if a South African electoral upset happened (as it did), this could galvanise Namibian opposition parties and voters to give the governing SWAPO Party a bloody nose, just as the ANC got on 29 May.

In addition, Namibia directly elects its President, unlike South Africa, and a situation could arise where the President is from one party while the legislature is controlled by another. Some Namibians think that this is likely.

In 2019 an independent and former member of SWAPO, Panduleni Itula (a dentist by profession), shocked the Namibian political establishment by winning nearly 30% of the vote in that year’s election, with the SWAPO candidate, Hage Geingob, seeing his share of the vote fall from 86.7% to 56%. This was despite Itula being something of an unknown, never having held senior positions in SWAPO or the Namibian government, and having little institutional backing. Similarly, in the legislative elections, SWAPO saw its share of the vote drop from 80% to 65%.

In this year’s election, set for late November, Itula is standing again, having formed his own party, the Independent Patriots for Change (IPC). The IPC had its first electoral foray in local elections in 2020 where it performed well, with just under 20% of the vote. It secured a number of mayoralties across the country.

But there are also serious questions over Itula, with one Namibian telling me, “You might let Itula be a presidential candidate, but you wouldn’t let him look at your teeth!”

But the South African earthquake, which saw the ANC shaken out of its complacency, could see Itula and his party, along with other opposition figures and parties, invigorated and more likely to give SWAPO a fright, or even vote it out.

Apart from our shared history, South Africa and Namibia share other challenges such as high levels of inequality, poverty, and unemployment, and these could see SWAPO’s hold on power threatened for the first time since Namibian independence in the 1980s.


Botswana is slightly different. Its history is somewhat different from South Africa’s and Namibia’s, the country never having had high levels of European settlement. The British government had a “hands off” attitude to its management of the Bechuanaland protectorate, which later became Botswana. It became independent in the late 1960s, and has been one of Africa’s most stable democracies, with regular free elections, and an absence of violent political contestation.

Nevertheless, in recent years the country’s slip has shown, and it is perhaps not as democratic as it appears from outside. Foreign academics who have been critical of the country have been expelled, while journalists have also spoken of harassment. It is also not as open to foreign investment as it has been in the past, with non-citizens finding it increasingly difficult to invest and run businesses in the country. Botswana has been heavily reliant on diamonds, and efforts to diversify the economy generally seem to have failed.

And while it has had free-and-fair elections since independence, these have all been won by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), with that party never having been challenged at the polls in any significant way. It is not clear that the BDP will be as magnanimous as the ANC was after its shellacking on 29 May.

In addition, unlike Namibia and South Africa, Botswana uses the antiquated first-past-the-post or “Westminster” electoral system. This means that should the BDP win less than 50% of the popular vote (something that has only happened once in the country’s history) it is still likely to secure a parliamentary majority.

Winds of change

That said, the winds of change may also be blowing in Botswana. Only one electoral poll has been conducted in that country ahead of this year’s election. It was conducted by Afrobarometer in 2022, and showed that the BDP had the support of only 22% of the electorate, with the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change on nearly 40%. (Nearly 30% of respondents said they were undecided). Of course, this poll was conducted some time ago, but it does show that there is some level of dissatisfaction with the BDP, and events in South Africa at the end of May could give further impetus to the opposition parties and their supporters.

Things are uncertain in South Africa, and this could be the case in Namibia and Botswana too. But in South Africa, democracy is working as it should, with voters letting the governing party know that things cannot carry on as they were. They need to change. Gaborone and Windhoek could soon get the same message.

And when all is said and done, it is far preferable to live in a messy democracy than in a decaying country run by a sclerotic party which retains power through violence, as is the case in Zimbabwe. South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia are lucky to be open democracies. Now it’s time to see these political systems lead to sustainable, diverse, and rapid economic growth.

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Image: University of Illinois via Wikimedia Commons,


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.