Storm over South Central Africa

There’s a Perfect Storm Brewing over South Central Africa

African Sustainable Development by Michael Musgrave  mkmusgrave

August 11, 2015

Amidst the controversy around Cecil the Lion, people who are concerned about Africa, and especially the area where Cecil comes from, are missing the point. There is potential for far bigger problems in the region than the illegal killing of an old, if iconic lion. To be sure, Cecil is symptomatic of one of these problems – a breakdown of law and order – but there are several other factors that may combine to cause serious political and social unrest. Electricity shortages, a total collapse of the last few industries in Zimbabwe, environmental destruction and appalling governance in the region combined with arrogance and incompetence provide a background to one upcoming event which may tip the balance: the effect of El Niño on the climate of the region. It may be just what is needed to precipitate the perfect storm.

There have been electricity shortages in Zimbabwe and Zambia  for more than 10 years. Very little has been done to address the problem and demand from South Africa means that whatever gains in supply that have been made by upgrading colonial era hydroelectric schemes has not solved the problem locally. South Africa itself has load shedding similar to Zambia and Zimbabwe 10 years ago.

There is little indication that the planned Medupi power station will do much to satisfy electricity demand for the next five years. There is a knock on effect of this failure to plan ahead – if you constrain energy supplies you constrain economic growth. That means fewer jobs for an expanding young population and when young people can’t find work it is a recipe for social unrest. There is no social security system that keeps people going in times of economic hardship anywhere in the region so widespread unemployment has a far greater social impact than it does in Europe.

Zimbabwe has been in economic decline for many years. The Mugabe strategy (if you can call chaos a strategy) has soured the climate for foreign investment regionally and sent millions of people scrambling over fences and under bridges into neighbouring countries, mostly South Africa. While Mugabe was content to only steal productive farms, embattled industry struggled on and continued to employ people. However Mugabe’s threats to acquire a controlling shareholding in all companies from platinum mines to hairdressers for indigenous Zimbabweans (and that means the ZANU-PF elite) have resulted in the closure of thousands of companies. To compound the loss of jobs that this caused, a recent Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruling made it clear that employers could dismiss an employee after three months notice. It had been much harder to dismiss employees in the past.

Thousands of people have lost their jobs as companies took advantage of the ruling in a scramble to maintain viability in a difficult business climate. In Africa one employee may support up to ten people so the effect is broadcast far more widely than the loss of a single job. No doubt there will be a few more thousand people scrambling under the fence at Beit Bridge or across the border to Botswana, all competing with locals for work and causing resentment and social discord. We saw the effects of this earlier this year when widespread xenophobic attacks broke out in Durban and Johannesburg.

When industry starts depending on cutting down trees for fuel, you know you have big problems. That is exactly what is happening outside of Lusaka, Zambia. Large chicken breeders, unable to get enough electricity to provide heating for the birds in the southern hemisphere winter, are burning charcoal which is made in rural areas and trucked into the city. Zambia already has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. The price of charcoal has increased due to increased demand over the past few months as residents of Lusaka and the Copperbelt cities compete with the urban poor for fuel to heat their homes and cook. Charcoal was already the main source of fuel for the urban poor but now everyone is using it. The environmental effects are going to be staggering.

Forests provide a vital environmental service of regulating rainfall runoff and ensuring rivers flow all year round. Increasing deforestation will result in more floods and lower dry season flows. Water levels in Kariba dam are already at catastrophic lows due to poor rainfall. A positive feedback appears to be forming where low water levels result in lower electricity generating capacity which results in increased demand for charcoal. Cutting the forests for charcoal will ultimately result in lower dry season river levels and so the unhappy situation continues.

Water levels at Kariba Dam are low which is affecting power generation and supply to Zambia and Zimbabwe

Currently Zambian industry is labouring under 8 hours of power cuts a day. In those industries which are able to work at night, some work is getting done on night shifts. But for the most part that universal rule about constraining energy supply and its effect on economic growth is having the predicted effect. Growth has slowed and jobs are being lost. First Quantum Minerals, Zambia’s biggest investor has been forced to reduce output from the copper mines and will shed about 1500 jobs this year. There are likely to be further job losses at other copper mines and across other manufacturing enterprises. Running generators using some of the most expensive diesel in the region is imposing a huge cost on tourist operations and other facilities which have to keep the power on in order to do business.

Zimbabwe has managed to come a byword for corruption, state sponsored theft, economic collapse and breakdown in law and order. But South Africa, the continents powerhouse, has major problems with governance. A program of black economic empowerment has placed incompetent people into jobs they are not trained to perform and it shows. Under the leadership of Jacob Zuma jobs in government or tenders for contracts have become rewards for the faithful. His unseemly sniggering when challenged in parliament is indicative of a total disregard for the dignity of the institution, or indeed of any institution. The use of armed policemen to extract members of the opposition.

Economic Freedom Fighters from parliament during this year’s State of the Nation address was a flagrant violation of the constitutional principle of the separation of powers. This may be dismissed as an academic issue but the refusal of the speaker of parliament, on national television, to confirm or deny whether she had allowed policemen into the chamber, was a disgusting display of arrogance and disregard for the people of South Africa. It was a lie and her discomfort and anger at being repeatedly questioned on the issue by the Democratic Alliance showed what we all knew to be the truth.

All this points to a crisis of governance, the scale of which has yet to be fully appreciated by South Africans. It creates a climate where disregard for rules is justified by everyone working in government. It fosters corruption and breeds a disregard for due process that is not only a violation of the rights of ordinary South Africans, but has economic effects that reduce growth. In Zambia a government which promised much when delivered to power in a peaceful, orderly election, seems to have run out of ideas. Malawi continues as best it can, continually reinforcing the conclusion of a study by the British colonial office just before Nyasaland was granted independence that it was not viable as a country. Malawi was an environmental disaster 20 years ago and the dense rural population is fully exposed to what may be the biggest shock of all: extended drought as the effects of El Niño start to reduce rainfall across southern Africa.

When the economy slows, or jobs are scarce, many Africans return to their rural homes and start planting. The population in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Moçambique and Malawi is heavily dependant on subsistence farming for survival. When crops fail, people go hungry, and hungry people are angry people. The El Niño effect causes droughts in southern Africa approximately once every 2 to 7 years. Scientists have poor predictive ability about the severity of the effect, but indications are that this year’s El Niño may be the strongest in 50 years. Rainfall is reduced in the main crop growing season of December to March.

Predictions about drought in southern Africa difficult to make because El Niño only explains about 30% of the variation in rainfall in the region. If there is a drought, low electricity supplies will be further limited by low hydroelectric output and this will further constrain economic growth resulting in job losses. These factors combined with poor governance, environmental devastation and failed crops is a recipe for a firestorm of social and political unrest.

I hope it doesn’t happen. Botswana, with its low population and relatively strong economy will use its good governance and increasingly mature institutions to weather the storm better than most. Namibia is mostly desert and the small population is unlikely to experience drier conditions than they are used to because the effect of El Niño is mainly in a band running across the region from Maputo to Livingstone.

I’m not a big believer in the power of prayer. I’ve been praying for governments which plan ahead and build power stations, practice good governance and respect the institutions which run the country. I’ve prayed for governments who conserve the environment and educate their people to innovate instead of blaming the West for everything and it hasn’t worked very well. But I’ll be praying for rain this season. God help us.

Michael Musgrave is a Research Fellow at School of International Relations, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, United Kingdom


School of International Relations, University of St Andrews


  1. Sustainable Forest Management Africa
  2. University of St Andrews,
  3. Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Society of Zambia


  1. University of St. Andrews


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