Drought, political infighting and unstable neighbors make for an ominous 2017 in southern Africa

South African President Jacob Zuma attends the ruling African National Congress party’s 105th anniversary celebrations in Soweto on Jan. 8. Political tensions may be raised further if South Africa is forced to deal with refugees from neighboring countries. (AP Photo/Yeshiel Panchia)

Zimbabwe’s economy is in meltdown. Mozambique seems headed for civil war. Madagascar’s drought is causing what most would call a famine. And South Africa muddles on through it all: drought, corruption and political instability. These were all problems last year, but a combination of factors in these African nations may bring things to a boil in 2017.

First, there is Madagascar, a large island state off the east coast of Africa that usually makes news only when its fragile democracy goes through a spasm of civil unrest. We do know there has been a massive drought in the south: crops have failed, and local fauna has been consumed nearly to extinction. People have been reduced to eating cactus to stay alive. But few in the wider world know about this humanitarian disaster; a cynic would say this is because, unlike states in the Middle East, the island has no oil.

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On the mainland, other crises are bubbling to the surface—again, largely out of the public eye, at least for the moment.

Some friends of mine recently returned to Johannesburg from Zimbabwe. The conditions they described were dire. There are reports of typhoid—a disease linked to poverty and poor sanitation. Unemployment is chronic, perhaps as high as 90 percent among young adults. Zimbabwe once had the best education system in Africa; now millions with marketable skills have migrated elsewhere to earn a living and send remittances home to relatives.

The nation has a serious cash shortage, so much so that the government has had to print “bond notes” to augment the U.S. dollars the country officially uses as currency. (The Zimbabwean dollar was suspended in 2009.) This soft currency ostensibly has parity with the U.S. dollar, but many fear this means nothing. The notes cannot be exchanged outside the country.

The strength of a currency is ultimately a measure of confidence people have in it, so the economic implications for Zimbabwe are potentially catastrophic. When confidence in a nation’s currency topples, the economy collapses and social disorder quickly follows. A currency crisis could also tip the uneasy balance of power in Zimbabwe, where stability is now maintained by a police force and army controlled by ZANU-PF, the internally unstable ruling party of nonagenarian President Robert Mugabe (who has held office since 1980). Dislodging ZANU-PF will not happen without a fight. If my sense of the political crisis is accurate, the potential exists for insurrection, if not civil war.

Bordering both Zimbabwe and South Africa, Mozambique also seems headed for conflict. The uneasy truce between the ruling Frelimo (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) party and its main opposition party, Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance), is breaking down and with it the possibility of a stable parliamentary democracy.

The two warring movements became political parties after a 1992 accord that ended a 17-year civil war, and their relations have always been tense. Last year there were skirmishes between them in northern Mozambique, Renamo’s base of support, forcing thousands to flee into neighboring Malawi. The Sant’Egidio Community in Rome, which helped broker the 1992 pact, says that Frelimo has largely failed to live up to its part of the agreement. Conflict has continued, and many observers in southern Africa speculate that another civil war is imminent.

The destabilization factor for the subcontinent is considerable. If just one of the countries experiences war, there is likely to be a flood of refugees into neighboring countries. Mozambicans fleeing to Zimbabwe could spark unrest there, perhaps triggering another civil war. Refugees fleeing to South Africa from either or both countries will add to South Africa’s own internal tensions and perhaps increase existing (currently low-level) xenophobia.

Compared to the potential disasters among its neighbors, South Africa seems like paradise. But this nation could also change for the worse in 2017.

South Africa already experiences regular and often violent protests over public service delivery. Some monitors suggest these are daily occurrences, but they seldom make news unless somebody dies. These are likely to continue. If the nation’s own drought continues, they could well increase.

One set of protests that did get the public’s attention in 2016—occurring in big cities rather than poor townships—was the #FeesMustFall actions at South Africa’s universities. At times destructive, the protests divided university communities: students against lecturers, lecturers against lecturers and virtually everyone against the administration.

The chief demand of the “Fallists”—free “decolonized” (whatever that means) education for all students or the shutdown of state universities—is simply impossible. Most university staff agreed in principle with free education but pointed out that they were not the ones able to foot the bill. And the government has refused to pay up. Still, everyone expects the protests to continue this year.

On the electoral politics front, the African National Congress celebrated its 105th anniversary on Jan. 8 with a show of unity and a renewed commitment to the poor, but the party is less than unified. A.N.C. leader Jacob Zuma is in his second term as the nation’s president, and South Africa’s Constitution prohibits him from running again. Nevertheless, there is speculation that Zuma will go for a third term as party leader this December, giving him massive influence over the selection of the A.N.C.’s presidential candidate in 2019. Some think it will be Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete, seen as part of the Zuma faction. This would suggest a “Putin scenario,” with Zuma continuing to run things behind the scenes.

Another possible candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (the president’s ex-wife), is seen as somewhat more independent but has had a spotty career in her previous ministerial duties. Some observers fear she too could be influenced by Zuma.

Opponents of Zuma and his ruling clique within the A.N.C. are hoping that the current deputy president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, wins the party leadership post at the end of this year. This could be seen as a victory for A.N.C. members who have attacked Zuma and his mismanagement of the country, despite Ramaphosa’s conspicuous silence in these debates. Some believe he is biding his time until December.

Compared to economic collapse and the specters of civil war, these problems may seem a walk in the park. Such a view, I believe, is mistaken.

Assume the worst-case scenarios happen. At best, the region’s crises could lead to a massive refugee problem and humanitarian disaster that the local “superpower," South Africa, cannot manage. This will further heighten political tensions in South Africa and play into the hands of opportunistic populists, including the Zuma bloc, within the A.N.C. and some smaller parties. A refugee crisis could also further burden an already weakened economy here.

Conflict and economic collapse in Zimbabwe and Mozambique could also spill into South Africa, with xenophobia and populism spreading throughout the country. Combined with the weakened economy, these conditions could even generate violent conflict.

It is possible that I am committing the political analyst’s cardinal sin—extrapolating a doomsday scenario based on limited evidence. I fervently hope I am wrong. But even if the worst does not happen, one thing is certain: Things do not look good in the “cradle of humankind” in the coming year.

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