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.