The protracted resignation of Robert Mugabe was met with relief and elation in Zimbabwe, and much further afield by those who have seen one of Africa’s most promising countries driven into misery by the former guerrilla fighter’s capricious 37-year rule. Many Zimbabweans of all political tendencies celebrated the prospect that “it is our time now”, rather than facing the prospect that the 93-year-old president may force his wife Grace Mugabe on the country. Elections next year may feature economically competent opposition politicians such as Simba Makoni, Nkosana Moyo or Tendai Biti. But Zanu-PF remains the dominant force for now, under regime strongman Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose 6 November sacking at Grace’s behest triggered the ruling couple’s departure.

Diplomats and security professionals who know Mnangagwa do not doubt his blood-curdling reputation, but suggest he will take a much more pragmatic approach to reviving the economy. The military top brass took the precaution of consulting China and possibly South Africa before their move. China has been Mugabe’s key economic partner and, despite tiring of its difficult ally in recent times, will remain important to Zimbabwe. But others will return, starting with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and including the European Union and other western allies. Unlike Mugabe, Mnangagwa has kept open lines of communication to the former colonial power.

No one doubts Zimbabwe’s huge potential, which will be further enriched if many of its well-educated 3m-plus exiled citizens are persuaded to come home. UK Africa minister Rory Stewart waxed lyrical, arguing that “if Zimbabwe set off on a better path, if its economy recovered, if it genuinely had some political freedom, that would have an incredible ripple effect across the region and be a huge example for Africa”. That the Zimbabwean military were so keen not to call their move a coup d’état says much for the changing political environment across the continent.

Is this, then, another step on the path towards closing the era of big man politics? Events in Zimbabwe and changes elsewhere in the region are tests of whether apparently radical changes of leadership in heavily personalised polities can drive widely desired political and economic changes.

In South Africa, where President Jacob Zuma’s ‘state capture’ has been widely seen to be ruining a major economy, many believe a change of president can radically overhaul the situation. Some alternative candidates, including vice-president Cyril Ramaphosa, have a very different conception of South Africa’s future economy – including the restructuring of Eskom and other failing state-owned enterprises.

A test of personalised politics and its economic impact has emerged in Angola with the 15 November sacking of Sonangol chief executive Isabel dos Santos and her hand-picked board by Angolan President João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço. She, of course, is daughter of former president José Eduardo dos Santos, whose hold over the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola is now seriously in question. But her modernisation programme has been sufficiently credible to suggest her appointment went beyond mere nepotism (AE 356/18). Her sacking and replacement by Lourenço ally Carlos Saturnino – a veteran head of Sonangol P&P who was appointed secretary of state for oil in October in a move then seen to ‘balance’ dos Santos’ hold over the company – suggests a pattern of business as usual.

Mugabe’s fall will inspire millions, but may not bring much change elsewhere. The International Crisis Group on 21 November issued a report which argues that Uganda suffers from “inefficient patronage politics and a downward spiral of declining governance, poor economic performance and local insecurity”. At the centre of these preoccupations is President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, in power since 1986 and unwilling to step down as he presides over dangerous drift. The situation in countries like Uganda and Angola is less dramatic than in Zimbabwe – or, increasingly, South Africa – but it represents a pattern of governance that much of Africa still struggles to overcome.