Joao Lourenço. Picture: REUTERS
Joao Lourenço. Picture: REUTERS

Ever so slowly, they move along. As expected, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) won the country’s election held last week. But its real significance was that Cold War veteran José Eduardo dos Santos, who is in poor health, will end his 38-year rule.

And there was something of a surprise too — major opposition party the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) won by far its highest proportion of the vote yet in national elections. Estimates are that Unita will win around 27% of the vote, and the MPLA around 61%. That may still change since the result is disputed.

In the two other elections that have been held since 1975, the MPLA won 81% in 2008 and 72% in 2012.

The big question now is how much things will change, since Angola is effectively a grand family kleptocracy. Although Dos Santos will be standing down, he remains hugely influential, since he remains party leader. His daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is thought to be one of Africa’s richest women. His son, José Filomeno, is in charge of a $5bn state investment fund.

It is well known in business circles that no major business is established without the family getting a stake. The level of corruption is so obvious and widespread that Dos Santos has taken the precaution of granting himself and his entourage lifelong immunity from prosecution. And even this was deemed not enough, since Dos Santos saw fit to cement in place a whole range of his supporters in influential positions in government, including the heads of the army and state security forces, and, of course, members of the family: Isabel is now locked in as the head of the state oil company Sonangol.

Still, for the first time since independence, Angola will have a new president, João Lourenço, who is himself no spring chicken. He is 63, and a former defence minister and party veteran. Significantly, Dos Santos lost the battle to have his own choice, former vice-president Manuel Vincente, installed as the party’s presidential candidate. Lourenço has been part of the MPLA’s somewhat forced move away from authoritarian socialism to a stilted form of a free market system. He has not ruled out deals with the World Bank and IMF to help restructure an economy that is overly dependent on oil.

For the first time since independence, Angola will have a new president

This economic change has been crucial. For the first decade of the new century, the country prospered as oil prices soared. But more recently, that strut has been pulled away, and the economy has dwindled. Inflation was at one point close to 40% and the country was on the verge of financial calamity.

As a result, the political profile of Angola is now toxic. Older veterans of the Cold War era still support the MPLA, which has cemented its place in the superstructure, particularly in the rural areas. But like many developing countries, Angola’s population is on average very young. Both the youth and urban Angolans want change, and the question is whether the political system will accommodate that change, or whether the old guard will maintain its position by force.

Already, the political system is showing strain. Only 9.3-million people registered to vote in the election out of a population estimated to be about 28-million. Around 20% of those registered failed to vote, suggesting either a very flawed voting process or widespread voter apathy, neither of which would be a positive sign.

Yet it’s hard not to celebrate the departure of one of the old men of African politics. Dos Santos is Africa’s second-longest serving African president. His departure begins a process in which a procession of geriatrics will depart, simply because they have reached an age where they can no longer continue. The idea that the MPLA could lose key urban districts was unthinkable a few years ago. Like SA and so many other places in Africa, change is taking place. Just very slowly.

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