Southern Africa's story is as diverse as the nine countries and more than 133 million people that call the region home. In some corners (eg Botswana and Namibia) political stability reigns, in others it looks more like stagnation (eg Zimbabwe and Swaziland). But there are some recurring themes, not least among them a complicated economic and environmental outlook and (finally) a generally positive outlook when it comes to the hitherto catastrophic HIV/AIDS situation.
Southern Africa's political map is a snapshot of the continent. There are stunning success stories of the kind that rarely appear in international newspapers – Botswana and Namibia, for example, have stable but relatively open political systems where the ruling parties rarely change but democracy rules. Put simply, both countries may not be perfect but continue to serve as beacons of good governance. Elsewhere, a less robust political situation reigns. South Africa's ruling ANC has been passing through some troubled times under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, while Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique have all seen tumultuous changes of government, albeit, it must be said, without bringing down their democratic systems – of all of these, Mozambique's stability looks the most tenuous. A 2014 coup in Lesotho was a significant black spot for the region. The poorest performers of the region are Swaziland and Zimbabwe, both countries held in a state of stasis for decades, two countries' national lives on hold as their rulers cling to power, seemingly in perpetuity.
AIDS: A Corner Turned?
Nowhere suffered from the horrors of HIV/AIDS quite like Southern Africa. It was a crisis of Biblical proportions, of countless lives cut short and social structures torn asunder. Life expectancy fell to near-apocalyptic levels (life expectancy in Botswana was 35 in 2005), the number of children orphaned by the crisis soared and the impact was felt in every corner of society. The challenges continue – in Swaziland, for example, nearly one-third of the population suffers from HIV/AIDS (28.8%, the highest in the world) and life expectancy at birth is one of the lowest on earth (around 50 years). But there are signs of hope – infection rates are falling across the region, and Botswana (where the government provides ARV – antiretrovirals – treatment free to all of its HIV-positive citizens) has seen mother-to-child transmission plummet from close to 40% to barely 2%. The damage of the epidemic has been incalculable and it will be a at least a generation before the health statistics of the region return to pre-HIV/AIDS levels. But finally there are signs that a high watermark may have been reached.
The Economic Outlook
The region's economies vary greatly. Botswana, Namibia and South Africa both rely heavily on their rich underground resources. Despite difficulties in all three national economies, they are difficulties that many other countries in the region would gladly have to deal with: their economic growth rates and per capita incomes are among the highest in Africa. At the other end of the scale, poverty is deeply entrenched and in a different stratosphere to the region's more prosperous economies – the average Botswanan earns US$16,400 per year, while in Malawi/Mozambique the average annual income is US$1100/1200. At this lower end of the spectrum, a combination of factors (not all of which are always present in every country) such as economic mismanagement, poor resource base and a damaging cycle of flood and drought make for a difficult economic future. And the impact of the economic divide is significant, one that has already taken a worrying turn with racial tensions between locals and poorer immigrants in South Africa and Zambia.
A Precarious Environment
The vagaries of rains that never seem to arrive and then arrive so suddenly as to wash everything away is a Southern African specialty. Flood and drought, feast and famine, are the recurring themes of the region's life and they're themes that are reflected in the region's landscapes – the vast deserts of the Kalahari and Namib, the equally vast floodplains of the Okavango and Liuwa, the lush tropical coasts of Mozambique. The extremes that have moulded these lands also produce a slew of environmental travails and challenges – creeping desertification, crippling erosion and widespread water scarcity among them. As for the human population, so too for Southern Africa's wild animals. With wild lands shrinking in the face of growing human populations, numerous species are spiralling dangerously close to extinction as conflict between wildlife and human beings intensifies. National parks and protected areas are important strongholds. But unless things change dramatically, such strongholds will be all that remains in the not-too-distant future.