Why COVID-19 can’t be blamed for Angola’s failure to have local governance

Albano Augustinho TrocoAlbano Augustinho Troco is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow under the SA/UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory. He holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests encompass issues on electoral politics, democratization and autocratization studies, secessionist conflicts and international relations.


Joao Lourenco, president of Angola. His promise to hold municipal elections this year has come to naught. Chesenot/Getty Images

Angola is the only southern African nation that has not introduced a system of elected local government. This, 45 years after it made constitutional provisions for the establishment of this important tier of government.

In 2018, President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This will no longer be the case. The government blames the COVID-19 health crisis for the failure. But the truth shows otherwise.

Even without the pandemic, local government elections would not have happened this year because Angola’s National Assembly has not approved the necessary legal framework. The framework, which was expected by mid-August this year, would have supported the gradual implementation of local government functions.

This, in my view, is part of a deliberate delaying strategy by the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), to maintain a system where the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence.

Angola’s system of governance

Angola has four levels of government – national, provincial, municipal and district (comuna). The last three enjoy little policy, budgetary or fiscal autonomy because of a rigid top-down relationship with the national government based in Luanda.

Central government effectively appoints all senior officials at the three lower levels. The president appoints the 18 provincial governors. They in turn appoint the 164 municipal administrators, who then appoint the 475 administrators of the districts.

Because officials at sub-national level are not elected by the people, they are politically and institutionally accountable to their hierarchical superiors, and, ultimately, to the president. Hence, sub-national government in Angola has always been remote from the people.

This governance system makes Angola one of the most politically and administratively centralised states in Africa. This heightens the zero-sum nature of national politics in Angola.

The party that wins the general elections gets to fill all executive offices with its own political appointees. These often also assume the chairmanship of the ruling party in their jurisdiction.

As a result, political parties that lose national elections can’t participate in local government. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which has been in power for decades, is the main beneficiary of this system. This practice will change once local elections are established.

Constitutional journey

Angola’s first post-colonial constitution referred to the concept of elected local government with administrative and fiscal autonomy. This constitution was enacted in 1975, the same year the country gained independence from Portugal.

Seventeen years later, a constitutional revision law postulated that state organisation at the local level should comprise two structures: elected local representative bodies (autarquias locais) and decentralised local units of the central government (órgãos administrativos locais).

The latest constitution of 2010 reaffirms the commitment to these principles. But it declares that the effective institutionalisation of local authorities will happen gradually.

A wide range of factors has hampered the implementation of these constitutional provisions. They include:

  • the 27 years of civil war between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and Jonas Savimbi’s party, Unita (1975- 2002);
  • the establishment of single-party rule by the ruling party along Marxist-Leninist lines, giving rise to a highly centralised and securitised state;
  • the institution of administrative de-concentration reforms. This means that the central government has the ability to transfer some of its responsibilities to local government units, without necessarily allowing for the establishment of elected representative bodies;
  • the introduction of the principle of gradualism in establishing a system of elected local representatives.
  • the use of delaying tactics to maintain the status quo.

Empty promises

The introduction of local elections would see the ruling party lose its monopoly over local government for the first time since independence. Thus, from a cost-benefit perspective, it can be argued that the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola does not have the incentive to implement locally elected government.

The party has delayed the implementation of a system of elected local representatives until the “conditions are right”. This would enable it to decentralise power without actually losing it.

For instance, in 2008, the Minister of Territorial Administration stated that local government elections would take place in 2011 after the constitutional changes of 2010. This never happened.

Similarly, in 2011 the ministry said that the country’s first local elections would be held by 2014, following a general election in 2012, and a population census in 2014. This too did not happen.

In 2016, the deputy president, Manuel Vicente, said local elections would possibly take place in 2021. Two years later President João Lourenço recommended that local elections be held in 2020. This came after consultations with the Council of the Republic (a constitutionally sanctioned body that advises the president on a wide range of issues).

The government announced that the local elections would start in selected municipalities, and spread to all municipalities by 2035. Opposition parties objected, and called for the simultaneous implementation of elected local government in all municipalities.

In August 2020, Parliament went into recess without completing the approval of the legal framework for the elections. The hope is that local elections will be held before the next general elections scheduled for 2022.

What next?

Angola has been in a severe economic crisis since 2014. The crunch is the combined result of a sudden decline in oil prices in international markets, a drop in domestic oil production, poor financial mismanagement, and massive corruption.

Consequently, the local currency has been devalued. This has raised public debt levels and external debt servicing costs. Meanwhile, foreign currency reserves continue to drop. This predicament could be used by the government to claim there is no money to hold local elections, further postponing the necessary development of local democracy.

For years, the ruling party has deployed delaying tactics to ensure that the central government appoints all officials at sub-national levels. The economy and current COVID-19 pandemic are simply the latest in a long series of excuses.


This article was first published by The Conversation on August 24, 2020.

What sets good and bad leaders apart in the coronavirus era

Lawrence HamiltonLawrence Hamilton is the NRF British Academy Research Professor in Political Theory, Wits and Cambridge. He contributes to rethinking political theory from and for the Global South. His works include Amartya Sen (2019), Freedom is Power (2014) and The Political Philosophy of Needs (2003).



Crises bring out the best and worst of politicians and populations. Folly, fear and fortitude are on display everywhere. In the main, democracies have fared better than non-democracies in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

But the record is very varied indeed. What explains this? What can be done about it?

Among democratic regimes, at the one extreme we have seen denialism, the denigration of scientific advice and an obsession with putting the economy before lives. This is especially evident in the United States and Brazil. At the other we have witnessed the organised, prudent, empathetic responses of countries such as South Korea, New Zealand, and Finland. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa initially did very well, but some subsequent decisions might damage his good record.

These two extremes of leadership style were evident even before COVID-19.

The USA and Brazilian responses to the pandemic, led by President Donald Trump and President Jair Bolsonaro, have been characterised by secretive, narcissistic, paranoid, hubristic and impulsive decision-making. These actions have endangered the lives and livelihoods of their residents, over which they have a duty of care.

The data bears this out well. Despite having arrived on their shores relatively late, the pandemic has ripped through their populations, with no sign of abating. They lead in infections and deaths.

At the other extreme, a common denominator has been a firm attempt by political leaders to “follow the science” and control the spread of the virus and fake news from the outset. A combination of transparency, prudence, empathy, timing and courage has produced excellent results in South Korea, New Zealand and Finland.

South Africa’s response has been lauded, though it is beginning to attract criticism for heavy-handed policing and some inexplicable decisions.

Democracy and leadership

What becomes clear is that in these fast-moving and life-defining times in democracies a great deal depends on the quality of the elected leadership. Democracies that happen to have leaders who simultaneously engage empathetically with those they govern and are informed by good science are best able to deal with the crisis.

They gather clear-eyed knowledge of their countries’ particular circumstances, and display courage and timing in making critical and sometimes unpopular decisions. They are able to overcome many of the challenges that the pandemic throws up.

Democracy helps, but it is not the deciding factor. What matters most is what kind of leader is in place, where his or her priorities lie: the well-being of the populace or the interests of a small group.

Four of the top five performing countries in terms of lives saved and control of the spread of the virus have women leaders: New Zealand’s Jacinda ArdernFinland’s Sanna Marin, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen. These women display empathy and firm focus on the well-being of their populations.

Politicians judge best when they listen to their populations and learn from the science. That is why democracy is uniquely placed to engender good judgements, as the Indian economist Amartya Sen argued with regard to famines, and I have argued elsewhere.

Yet, it would be mistaken to think that democracy guarantees good judgement. If the purveyors of conspiracy theories and exemplars of prejudice are also your democratic leaders, democracy itself cannot resolve things. It only gives citizens the power to remove those leaders at the next election.

Bread, circuses and crises

In the current crisis, Ramaphosa has done a much better job than Trump and Bolsonaro.

Ramaphosa got off to a great start. He acted firmly, quickly, with clear justification and impressive results. South Africans have just emerged from one of the most severe lockdowns imposed anywhere in the world. This kept the infection rate nearly as low as that of South Korea, though it is now shooting up.

During this period, however, there have been at least two problematic decisions that undermine public trust and thus how people may behave.

The first is the decision to ban the sale of tobacco. Even if we could distinguish sharply between basic needs and other needs – something I dispute – the idea that addiction to smoking falls into the latter category, and that, along with the fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, justifies the ban, is misguided. For an addict, the need for a cigarette may often trump even the need for vital nutrition.

The second is the decision to allow religious gatherings to resume under lockdown level 3. Having spent so long restricting gatherings, to now allow larger gatherings seems like folly. It is well known – cases abound from South Africa to South Korea – that, like funerals, large religious gatherings are super-spreading events.

Along with the ban on tobacco products and the incorrect assumption that the state could directly meet the basic nutritional needs of the population via the delivery of food parcels, the response to the religious lobby is reminiscent of Juvenal’s comment under imperial Rome some two thousand years ago that all the people really want is “bread and circuses”. This is not what people want or need. They require the power to express their actual needs and interests and the democratic means to ensure that government responds to these.

Ramaphosa’s good leadership has been undermined by a paternalistic attitude to people’s needs and seeming deference to South Africa’s powerful religious lobby.

Lessons to be learnt

Two things can be learnt from the varied responses to the coronavirus crisis.

First, we must use it to find a roadmap for how we can properly make the health and well-being of a state’s population the raison d’être of its government. The first thing to identify is that health is not the “absence of disease” but the status we each have when our ever-changing needs are optimally satisfied. For this, we need a politics that allows us to express and assess our needs, and determine who is best placed to represent us in responding to these needs, all in non-dominating conditions.

Second, given that it is no accident that those leaders who have responded worst to this crisis have also been the main sources of countless conspiracy theories and misinformation, we must learn to keep oligarchs away from political power. Under representative democracy, bar outright revolution, we do not have the power to affect the everyday decisions of our representatives, but we can keep those with exclusive social and economic interests out of positions of political power.


This article was first published by The Conversation, June 7, 2020

South Africa in lockdown: COVID-19 information and its inconsistencies

Candice BaileyCandice Bailey is a Political Studies PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand looking into the Promotion of Access to Information Act and how it enables democracy.


SOUTH AFRICA enters a new phase of its ongoing COVID-19 fight this week, loosening the grip on a variety of regulations introduced in mid-March to try and contain the spread of the deadly virus. The latest stage of the lockdown takes place as South Africa marks more than 30 000 COVID-19 cases and close to 700 deaths. 

Level three means that most of the economy opens up, a large cohort of workers return, previously forbidden goods such as alcohol go on sale and the night-time curfew is lifted. Social distancing is still a must, as is wearing masks in public and so is vigorous handwashing. Staying home as much as possible is still the best course of action and interprovincial travel remains prohibited, with the exception of business travel and those attending funerals of close relatives. 

At this time the government is relying on the public to take collective responsibility for the management of the virus. Providing definitive guidance and information to the citizenry is more important now than ever before. One critical issue is the need for people to understand the severity of this pandemic, how easily it can spread and the fact that even the simple day-to-day tasks we carry out can put us at risk of contracting the virus. 

But the concern here is that the government’s track record over the last 9 to 10 weeks with providing definitive guidance hasn’t been great. This may have disastrous consequences for the South African government which should be seen as the most reliable authority on COVID-19 guidelines. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s initial address announcing lockdown measures put everyone at ease. The public felt informed and in control. But as the lockdown has progressed, Ramaphosa and members of his cabinet have created scenarios of pandemonium. At certain points there has been clear definitive communication on the lockdown rules. On other occasions the public has been left in pockets of vast uncertainty caused by inconsistent messaging and uncoordinated communication. Sometimes the goalposts have shifted. At other times critical statistical information has been left out when engaging with the public.

Some government officials have made about turns mid-regulation, while other ministers have bordered on an authoritarian approach, threatening the public about regulations. There are countless examples. The to-ing and fro-ing of when exactly public schools would reopen, is a case in point. The sale of cigarettes and tobacco products is another. The actions of some soldiers when implementing enforcement can be added to the list. And a clear explanation on why the Western Cape has higher figures than the rest of the country and why its engaged in a different testing model is another question that has not been convincingly addressed. 

The other worrying trend emerging is the seemingly reluctant stance of Provincial Government officials in the Western Cape to adhere to national decisions, creating confusion. 

Although there are mechanisms that the public could use to comment on regulations, this has also been a clouded issue. It’s still generally unclear how the public can comment on the regulations. Is there a central place where the public can lodge their comments? And what about those in rural areas – with limited access to electronic communication – how do they make sure their voices are heard? 

We are in unchartered territory – and to a certain degree the government must be commended for rolling with the punches and taking definitive action very early on in the pandemic’s cycle. But there are times that they have gotten it very wrong.  The good thing is that they were able to admit when in practice certain regulations were just not workable and they needed to be amended accordingly. The decision not to sell baby clothing in level 5 is a clear example of how one sector of the citizenries needs were completely overlooked.

COVID-19 will be around for a long time and the only way citizens are going to survive it is if they get information they need – and are able to make informed choices about the issues that affect them. 

Renowned Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has published one of the most notable discussions within modern democratic theory on the need for information in democracy. In the time of COVID-19, we need to remember these words and ensure that the information we receive is not only provided consistently, but also that it is reliable and above all accurate. In his seminal work The Idea of Justice, Sen discusses the role that the media plays in society, drawing on the links between the media and public reasoning. He speaks of an informational role the media play in disseminating knowledge, allowing critical scrutiny and facilitating public reasoning. He also emphasizes the importance of “general information” about what is happening where. One of Sen’s poignant illustrations is that of famine. He argues that “famines do not take place in functioning democracies” – and that the media have an important role in this because it points to the protective power of political liberty. Sen says: “When a government is accountable to the public, and when there is free news-reporting and uncensored public criticism, then the government too has an excellent incentive to do its best to eradicate famines.” Sen was speaking about the Bengal famine of 1943 where an estimated 3 million people died. 

The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be compared to the Bengal famine. But it is an unprecedented global health crisis with more than 6 million people infected and more than 370 000 people dead. The estimates are that in South Africa, at least 45 000 people will die from this virus.

There are two important points that Sen makes. Firstly, public dialogue about the calamity can make the fate of the victim a powerful political issue which ultimately has an impact on voting. But it is also able to make people take an interest in the matter through public discussion. The second point concerns the informational role, which provides the public with knowledge. What this suggests is first and foremost that democracy has a role in creating informed citizens, and mechanisms such as freedom of access to information can be used by the media to effect accountability. 

The ruling of the Pretoria High Court this week shows that the judiciary also has a role to play in ensuring the dissemination of clear and precise information. It must do this by admonishing the government when it errs in drafting or enforcing regulations. The court’s  decision to send the government back to the drawing board and focus on drafting level 3 and 4 regulations that are in line with South Africa’s constitution is an indication that its democracy is alive and well. 

If the South African government wants the support of the public, they need to clean up their communication act. South Africans expect them to provide clear precise and well considered communication. And they need to remember that in a democracy you need to subscribe to a brand of governance that is citizen-centred. People need to feel considered and listened to. The public don’t want their concerns to fall on deaf ears. They want to feel like democracy is functioning in the face of the global health crisis. 

The expectation of the electorate as a collective is not that each individual’s preferences and requests be met, but that the needs of the citizens are dutifully engaged and considered when decisions are made. South Africa has a mixed participatory and representative democracy, but  for citizens to truly participate, they need to be well informed. Accurate information gives citizens the ability to effectively live their lives. If the status quo remains and the government fails to adequately share information, our democracy and our freedoms, such as access of information that holds it together, will be on a slippery slope.

COVID-19 and the Politics of the Year of the Nurse

Isabel BosmanIsabel Bosman is currently studying towards a Master’s degree in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research interests include elections, electronic voting and biometrics, and she is also interested in Political Theory. She is a 2020 Konrad Adenauer Stiftung scholar. As part of the scholarship programme, she is also a current intern at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) where she works in the African Governance and Diplomacy programme as well as SAIIA’s ‘Atoms for Development’.


When the World Health Organisation (WHO) last year named 2020 the ‘International Year of the Nurse and Midwife’, there was no way of knowing that this would have a prophetic ring to it. Five months into 2020, the picture that the WHO had in mind celebrating the work of nurses and midwives looks dramatically different. It’s one in which nurses and other critical medical personnel are being pushed to their very limits in a global pandemic that leaves more questions than answers in its wake. And yet celebrating their work is all the more relevant in the current context.

The challenges critical medical personnel are currently facing all lead back to a central question of care. There are three main challenges these critical workers face: insufficient supply of necessary protective equipment on a global scale; growing hostility towards them; and difficulties with access to childcare.

Considering the essential services they are providing, these are all challenges that they should not be subjected to, particularly not as the world marks the Year of the Nurse.

These critical workers all need the physical and emotional protection they deserve so that they fulfil their role as caregivers. It is imperative that their voices find expression and that their needs for personal care are met so that they extend care to the wider population in need of it.

Insufficient supply of necessary protective equipment

Critical medical personnel are some of the most important essential service providers the world needs right now. As a result, they are among the people with the most direct exposure to the coronavirus and in a perpetual state of risk. However, globally the life preserving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they need is in short supply. As the virus continues to spread, demand for this equipment naturally goes up. And with it, the cost of this necessary equipment has gone up significantly at the same time. As a response to the pandemic, the WHO calculates that medical personnel need a monthly total of 89 million masks, 76 million gloves, and 1.6 million protective goggles. Two months ago the WHO estimated that along with rising demand, a 40% increase in production of PPEs would be necessary.

Without the necessary protective equipment in the field, it is only a matter of time before a dilemma of a different kind develops: the more medical personnel infected with the disease, the less will be available to provide treatment to not only COVID-19 patients, but those with other conventional illnesses as well.

The effects of this can already be felt in South Africa.  Duduza clinic in Gauteng has been closed   after a nurse contracted COVID-19 and St. Augustine Hospital in Durban has halted the admission of new patients to allow staff and previously admitted patients to undergo testing following the death of three COVID-19 patients. These two examples show that society as a whole will be affected if nurses and other critical medical personnel are not thoroughly protected.

Growing hostility

Another challenge that nurses share on a global scale is increasing feelings of hostility towards them that often manifests in physical violence and aggression. Medical personnel have had to endure harmful chemicals and rocks thrown at them. In Mexico and Australia, hospital staff have refrained from publicly donning their uniforms for fear of physical violence and people spitting on them. In what Roborgh and Fast call ‘a deliberate weaponisation of COVID-19’, medical professionals in New Zealand and Australia as well as the UK have had to endure people trying to purposefully cough or spit on them.

In parts of Asia medical personnel have been threatened with arrest and in the UK and US have had to endure limitations on their freedom of speech for speaking out against uncooperative governments and the lived experiences of dealing first hand with the virus. In other cases, medical personnel are evicted from their homes by landlords concerned that they will carry and spread the virus (see also Roborgh & Fast, 2020). In Roborgh and Fast’s analysis, this adds ‘safety issues and economic hardship at a time of profound personal and professional pressure.’

Difficulties with access to childcare

A third important aspect to consider in this context is the question of childcare. Childcare, or familial care more broadly, is still largely dominated by women. This is important when considering the global gender – make up of medical workers, also dominated by women. The WHO has determined that women make up 70% of medical professionals worldwide. Zooming in on the country level, in the US, women occupy 76% of all jobs in the field and more specifically, they constitute 85% of nursing staff in the US.

Recently, it was reported that medical personnel in Japan are prohibited from sending their children to day care facilities or the few schools that are open, or in less extreme cases are required to present proof that their children are COVID-free. One hospital already reported that, as a result of the prohibition, medical personnel have had to take leave in order to tend to their children. 

As part of the global response to the pandemic, schools and childcare facilities have closed en masse. Duty bound, medical personnel and other essential workers provide much needed services to the wider population. However one has to ask what happens in cases where these workers require childcare, but are unable to access it?

These three factors are all intrinsically linked to the one aspect that forms such a central part of the healthcare profession: care.

How can the world truly celebrate the Year of the Nurse when nurses and other critical workers are facing these challenges in the line of duty? Are those frontline workers who are providing an essential service really being honoured? It is necessary for the world to ask in the Year of the Nurse, ‘who will care for the caregivers?’