JOHANNESBURG – Angola's new leader is making surprising moves to shake himself free of the legacy of one of Africa's longest-serving presidents, and is seeking closer relations with South Africa.
Joao Lourenco is to visit South Africa Thursday and Friday, after having already met with President Jacob Zuma in Angola earlier this week.
Since winning election in August, Lourenco has taken steps to show that he is running a new government, even firing the daughter of former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos as chair of the powerful state-owned oil company.
When the ailing dos Santos stepped down after nearly 38 years in power, Lourenco, the former defense minister was generally expected to conduct business as usual. But Lourenco, 63, quickly appointed a crop of new ministers to differentiate himself from dos Santos and replaced key security personnel.
In his most striking move so far, Lourenco this month removed the former president's daughter, Isabel dos Santos, as chair of the national oil company, Sonangol. She is said to be Africa's richest woman.
Lourenco's steps to distance himself from his predecessor come even though both are longtime members of the ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola that fought for independence from colonial ruler Portugal. Lourenco was the defense chief throughout much of Angola's 27-year civil war that ended in 2002.
Even though Lourenco is the new president, dos Santos remains party leader with seemingly significant sway in how Angola is run. Lourenco's major challenges include Angola's 29 percent inflation and 26 percent unemployment.
"Joao Lourenco has been busy consolidating his power in Angola following the smooth transition of power from dos Santos," Alex Vines, the head of the Africa program at Chatham House in London, said by email. The untroubled transfer of power gives Lourenco "additional authority" in tackling the economic issues, Vines said.colin
Angola, Africa's second-largest oil producer and an OPEC member, has grappled for years to reduce its dependence on the oil production that accounts for almost all of its foreign exchange and trade, causing shocks when oil prices plummet.
Spurring trade to boost an economy still reeling from the 2014 crude oil price collapse will be the focus of Lourenco's talks with South African Jacob Zuma, head of sub-Saharan Africa's most developed economy.
Lourenco is now implementing an ambitious six-month plan that includes consolidating taxes, limiting public debt, improving productivity and attracting foreign direct investment.
"The new president hopes to change the country's fortunes and quickly address its more pressing challenges," Tiago Dionisio, an analyst at Eaglestone Securities in Lisbon, said by email. "Angola's economic growth prospects over the long term will largely depend on the new government's willingness to implement much-needed structural reforms."
Lourenco's decisions could lead to a more effective administration to benefit the southern African nation of 29 million, almost two-thirds of whom live in poverty on less than $2 a day.
However, Angola must thwart its reputation for corruption. Transparency International ranks it 164th out of 176 countries in its 2016 global corruption index. Entrenched patronage systems of Angolan elites, including the dos Santos family, often trump efforts to institutionalize accountability.
"There is fear among many that the new president will simply install his own unaccountable and secretive system of control over the economy and politics," Markus Weimer, founder of Faktor Consultants in London, said by email. "Next year will be crunch time for Lourenco. The excitement surrounding his reforms will have worn off and the reality of economic hardship will bite."
Lourenco's first diplomatic change was to name a new Angolan ambassador in South Africa, emphasizing the importance of an improved bilateral relationship.
Lourenco and South Africa's Zuma, the leaders of the region's two largest military powers, also are expected to discuss leadership succession plans for regional neighbors Zimbabwe and Congo.
They'll want to ensure a calm post-Robert Mugabe transition in Zimbabwe while forcing Congo President Joseph Kabila to set a firm election date after months of delays. Angola has called on Kabila to step down as it seeks a stable neighbor able to limit cross-border migration and deny bases to Angolan rebels from the northern oil province of Cabinda.
"From the Angolan perspective, Kabila looks unfit for the job," Weimer said. "This is unlikely to change under Lourenco"