Home | About Us | News Feeds RSS | Subscribe | Support Us | User Login | Search

Southern Africa Report Archive

Larry Swatuk writes on regional politics which, in addition to critiquing the nature of South Africa's emerging role in southern Africa politics, also uncovers some venal truths about Mugabe's own foreign adventures. (jbv)

vol 15 no 3

South Africa in the region: "Botha would be proud"
Larry Swatuk

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 15 No 3, May 2000
Page 12
"Southern Africa"



Larry Swatuk lectures in the Department of Political and Administrative studies at the University of Botswana.

Throughout the 1990s, there was much speculation regarding the post-apartheid era. "What futures for southern Africa?" asked Rob Davies and Bill Martin. "Gazing into the continental crystal ball," I along with Dave Black wondered if it was now possible to "bridge the rift." Other interested observers questioned whether South Africa would emerge as a "partner or hegemon" and, if the latter, would it be "benevolent, benign or malign"? More recently, Bertil Oden has interrogated the possibility that South Africa, far from being the regional "dynamo," will instead be its "albatross." More directly, Michel Chossudovsky speaks of "exporting apartheid to sub-Saharan Africa."

Few of us have been willing to abandon optimism, continually looking back to statements made in the RDP, early ANC policy papers and formal government statements regarding the importance of balanced and equitable regional development to South Africa's future. In the intervening years, it has become clear that South African policy makers are committed to the region and to SADC as a vehicle for regional economic development. But it has also become clear that South African involvement on the continent and in the region reflects a narrowly neo-liberal agenda, the beneficent language of the "African Renaissance" notwithstanding.

The recently held SADC consultative conference in Mbabane, Swaziland offers a lens through which to demonstrate not only the parochial nature of South African government policy, but the increasingly belligerent attitude taken by policy makers in regard to the "hegemon's" involvement in the region. Without doubt, South Africa is emerging as the bully on the block.

Indeed, what rankles most with other member states is South Africa's increasing disregard for viewpoints emanating from beyond its own borders. When it comes to the "how" of regional development, South African policy makers believe they know best. According to one observer, "South African officials behave as though they are 90 percent ahead of the rest of the region . and they are. So, they behave in an arrogant manner, because they can." Aside from the ongoing controversy between South Africa and Zimbabwe concerning the SADC organ on politics, defense and security (OPDS), few policy makers seem willing or able to challenge South Africa. According to SADC statistics, although South African GDP growth was a meagre 0.6 per cent in 1998, its proportion of total regional GDP had actually risen by about one percent over 1990 totals, from 92 to 93 percent. The tendency among SADC state policy makers, therefore, is one of hard-bargaining at the bilateral level: get what you can, since South African business, industry, capital and military power are preeminently determining factors in current, and in all probability future, regional relations. It is a regional strategy of which P.W. Botha would be proud.

Renaissance and penetration

Legitimising - at least among South African policy makers - this increased economic domination in the SADC region (and beyond) is the rhetoric of "renaissance." It is no accident that the idea of an "African renaissance" spearheaded by South Africa was first presented to an American audience in April 1997. Built around a neo-liberal discourse and trading on inclusive language of continental economic integration, the African renaissance purports to locate South Africa within the continent and the continent within the world. Supporters of this "renaissance" rely on a mix of economic and political argumentation, choosing particular aspects for emphasis depending on whether the audience is domestic (e.g. the importance to South Africa's economy of expanded manufacturing exports to Africa), or continental (e.g. South Africa's ability to serve as a launching pad for international capital investment into the continent).

The idea of "renaissance" and South Africa's "pivotal state" position therein have been of fundamental importance to American and EU policy on Africa. According to USAID's Regional Centre for Southern Africa, peace in this "strategically important region" can have a "stabilising effect in Africa." If southern Africa is to be a "zone of peace," South Africa must play a determining role. At the same time, part of SADC states' perceived inability to resist South African state and business penetration is that it slots so neatly into neo-liberal processes of globalisation. There is a very clear line extending from South African support for (or acquiescence to) global multilateral organisations like the WTO, World Bank and IMF, to a domestic economic strategy which rests on the same neo-liberal principles, to South Africa's penetration and domination of markets on the continent, and determined search for the same beyond.

There has been a great deal of pressure exerted on SADC members by donor countries, particularly the US and the EU, to bring individual state policy into line with "global imperatives." Both US and EU policy makers are keen to see liberal forms of regional integration. For America, the hope of a "democratic peace" forged around a regional constellation of "market democracies" hinges on South Africa. A great deal of effort has been expended by Western powers in the concerted attempt to make this formula "work" in South Africa. So, recent economic indicators notwithstanding, South Africa's "negotiated revolution" is unambiguously celebrated the world over in the context of liberal triumphalism. Extended to the region, USAID/RCSA's long-term strategic plan includes, first and foremost, helping foster "a cluster of well-functioning democracies in the region."

The Mbabane meeting

If South Africans have long been enamoured of all things American, policy makers are increasingly behaving, as one local newspaper dubbed them, like "the Yankees of Africa." A very clear demonstration of this swaggering approach to regionalism took place at the recent SADC Council of Ministers meeting in Mbabane, Swaziland, a meeting dubbed "Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the New Millennium." Shortly before the February 2000 meeting, on 25 January, South Africa ratified the long delayed trade protocol. The stated objective of the trade protocol is to "liberalise inter-regional trade in goods and services, ensure efficient production within SADC, contribute toward a climate for investment and enhance the economic development, diversification and industrialisation of the region." While there remain many contentious elements regarding implementation of the protocol - for example, an appropriate formula for determining "rules of origin" - South African officials felt it in their best interest to sign. And, as the ninth member state to ratify the protocol, it is now able to take effect.

South Africa sent a delegation of more than 45 people, including what one observer described as "a never ending parade of ministers and senior officials," to Mbabane. This behaviour runs contrary to SADC rules of procedure which clearly state that each delegation is to be led by one minister. Other SADC member states sent the normal complement of three or four representatives. According to one SADC official, it was hard to not draw parallels between South Africa's behaviour in Swaziland and the US's behaviour at the US/SADC forum held in Gaborone the previous July. At that meeting, US behaviour was said to resemble a bullying father lecturing recalcitrant and ignorant children.

There are two explanations making the rounds regarding South Africa's behaviour, one speculative, the other more informed. The speculative explanation centres around infighting and suspicion within South African government and policy making circles. Rather than trust one minister to adequately represent South African "interests," the decision was taken to send all interested parties. This explanation jibes quite closely with member states' general impressions of undue paranoia and scheming in the South African camp. The more informed explanation derives from the observed behaviour of the South African delegation at the Mbabane meeting. Keen to have their interests prevail, South Africa made sure that their sector representatives were present during all deliberations.

In particular, with the ratification of the trade protocol, South African officials pushed hard for the creation of a Protocol Implementation Office (PIO) to be located at the Secretariat headquarters in Gaborone, a move the donors firmly supported. The idea of a PIO has been in the works for some time with a reticent Tanzania, as sector coordinator for trade and industry, leery of loss of status and power. In preparation for the Mbabane meeting, the Secretariat bargained very hard to gain Tanzania's acquiescence in the matter, appearing at one point to have reached agreement. Indeed, SADC officials expressed surprise when they discovered that Tanzania was being represented not by a minister, but by a permanent secretary in Mbabane whose presentation to the Council clearly stated Tanzania's opposition to the creation of a PIO, thus, sending the issue back to square one. South African, EU and American officials are doubtful whether Tanzania has the capacity to act as the implementing agent of the protocol and so have created a united front in support of PIO. Other SADC member states - at least those who have ratified the protocol - appear to be in agreement with "big brother" on this issue, but fear the precedent that the loss of a sector, or part of a sector, would set in the region.

The push for the PIO corresponds with advances in the finance and investment sector, coordinated by South Africa, whereby a regional "bank of international settlements" has been agreed to by SADC finance ministers. Led by South Africa, this sector is clearly a club of like-minded central bankers. At the same time, South Africa has been highly critical both of the proliferation of sectors in SADC and of general organisational malaise. Making the rounds at Mbabane was the so-called "secret document" first leaked at the Maputo summit in which it is argued that SADC restructuring and rationalisation is to now be a top-down affair, with responsibility lying firmly in the office of the presidents. This runs contrary to the 1997 review which suggested formation of national SADC councils and other bottom-up institutions. But it is clearly in line with the increasing tendency toward personalised politics and "big man" diplomacy in the SADC region. Where Mbeki cannot trade on the charisma and force of character of former President Mandela, he clearly carries the backing of the world's most powerful states and multilateral institutions with him in regional forums.

In spite of its criticism regarding the proliferation of sectors, South African officials at the Mbabane meeting pushed for the creation of a social sector to be headed by them. Arguing that the impetus for such a sector comes from preparations for the upcoming UN-sponsored global social summit, more cynical observers feel that South African control of a "social" sector would provide them with the legitimacy to interfere in virtually all SADC activities. Were that to come to pass, all that remains to complete South African hegemony would be to put their own national at the head of the Secretariat. According to one official, however, this is one eventuality to which no other member would agree. Indeed, it is one of the only issues that unites the alliance.

The OPDS, Mugabe and South Africa

One other issue that is said to unite SADC members is their mutually felt regret at fast-tracking the DRC into the organisation. Mandela's "gesture of goodwill" has reaped an extremely bitter harvest. In retrospect, it seems fair to argue that greed rather than goodwill was the driving force behind the SADC decision: visions of land, minerals, water and energy made Kabila's Congo virtually irresistible. Symbolising the present bitterness and feelings of ill will is the continuing dispute over the state of the OPDS, chaired since its creation by Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe.

As is only too well known, Mugabe has been parading Zimbabwe's intervention in the DRC as a SADC action under the direction of the OPDS. In April 1999 at Windhoek, he convened a meeting of heads of state and government as well as their ministers of security and defense. Only four of SADC's 14 member states attended this meeting. Undeterred, Mugabe forged a defense pact among Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe and the DRC, and claimed it to be a SADC peacemaking operation. The four states have their militaries in active service in the DRC at present. In contrast, South Africa has maintained its distance, preferring instead to work through Zambia's president Frederick Chiluba who has been at the centre of regional attempts to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. Both the US and EU support this latter initiative and stand equally critical of the actions of Mugabe.

A compromise of sorts was reached at the Maputo SADC summit. There it was agreed that Mugabe would continue to chair the organ (a SADC concession), but he was given six months to hammer out the operational modalities in consultation with the so-called troika: Mbeki, Chissano and Nujoma - the past, present and future chairs of SADC (Mugabe's concession). That six months has now elapsed with a solution nowhere in sight. It is felt by informed observers that Nujoma and Mugabe stand in alliance against Chissano and Mbeki. What will come of this impasse is not clear. The Norwegians have waded into the fray and have offered to pay for the entire infrastructure of the organ if only SADC can get itself sorted on this issue.

Clearly, individual SADC member states are pursuing narrowly defined "national" interests using the guise of "regional peacemaking" as they see fit. For South Africa to be critical of Mugabe's behaviour in the DRC is tantamount to the pot calling the kettle black - the so-called "SADC" operation in Lesotho exposing the lie of transparency, accountability and ethics in government in the "new" South Africa. At the same time, South Africa's intelligence, defence, and foreign policy communities continue to resist participation in the US African Crisis Response Initiative, remain ambivalent about the OPDS, but clearly favour bilateral "defence and security" initiatives with NATO/EU member states. In this way, it appears South African policy makers are committed to regional peace and continental renaissance but only on their own terms.

Regarding South Africa's trade negotiations with the European Union, it is both troubling and ironic that it is EU member states - not South Africa - which most consistently raise the issue of the agreement's implications for SADC member states (granted, largely in defense of their own European interests). Beyond half-hearted attempts by South African negotiators to incorporate the provisions of the SADC free trade protocol into the SA-EU agreement, at the end of the day it is South African producers' and consumers' interests that matter most.


It is not surprising how neatly this all fits into a neo-liberal global discourse. It is as if we are finally admitting the folly of our hopes for a state-led equitable post-apartheid future, large parliamentary and popular majorities in South Africa and Namibia notwithstanding. In answer to Bertil Oden's query at the outset of this piece, then, South Africa appears at once the "dynamo" and the "albatross": in the absence of particularly EU and Nordic donor interventions regarding equitable regional cooperation and balanced development, South African policy makers appear little concerned with "balance" and "equity." While the dynamo serves and helps itself, old SADCC (with two Cs) fears go unattended. In the presence of such dominance, it is little wonder that SADC policy makers strike what bargains they can. The albatross of unequal development seems impossible to shake. Relying on state makers has always been a mug's game. If an equitable regional future lies anywhere, it is surely not in the state houses of the region.

- 30 -
Printable Version

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

     top of page