11 Mar 2018

Elitist Leaders Dismantle SADC Dream of Regional Unity

Written by  Mark Paterson

No. 385: Elitist Leaders Dismantle SADC Dream of Regional Unity / Mark Paterson / Sunday Argus
11 March 2018

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been attacked as an elite club used by corrupt national leaders to justify their hold on power.

The regional body was criticised for marginalising civil society groups in its deliberations and for failing to deliver any real benefits to South Africans and the rest of the region.

"The African leader is not ready for regional integration," Arthur Mutambara, former deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe, told a meeting organised by the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, as he accused the continent's rulers of being "stumbling blocks".

They preferred to remain presidents over "poor, starving people", rather than accept the idea of service within regionally integrated systems of government, he said.

Southern Africa's heads of state and government put parochial interests above the greater economic and developmental good that regional integration can bring, he argued.

"They will talk to you, not out of love but out of economics, he told the meeting.

In this context, Mutambara stressed the potential impact of the proposed tripartite free trade area among the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the East African Community and SADC, which produces an annual GDP of $3.3 trillion.

However, instead of providing a platform for such integration, SADC was betraying the ideals of post-liberation Southern Africa, he said.

No one is calling the leaders to account on this," Boichoko Ditlhake, the outgoing executive director of the SADC Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, told the meeting, part of a seminar on the regional body attended by government officials, academics and civil society activists from the region.

Having worked closely with the institution since 2000, Ditlhake described "a systematic process of dismantling what SADC was meant to be" and a disempowered secretariat that often was in competition with civil society in its quest for influence.

He accused the secretariat of seeking to marginalise mechanisms for greater engagement in the body's decision-making.

The disconnect between ordinary citizens and the SADC was emphasised by civil society activist Braam Hanekom, who has campaigned for Zimbabwean refugees in Cape Town.

Hanekom described the body as little more than a rubber stamp for national elections in Southern Africa. "How can SADC be expected to respect the values of constitutional democracies when King Mswati III of Swaziland, a constitutional monarch, is involved?" he asked the meeting, which was titled Who Owns SADC? Civil Society and Regional Integration in Southern Africa.

Ditlhake also expressed his disillusionment over the regional integration project. "I shouldn't have gone to Gaborone to find the SADC, I should have stayed at home," he half-joked.

However, he also affirmed the importance of the region-building project and the positive part that the SADC had played in this.

In this regard, speakers at the meeting pointed to the gap between the protocols promoted by the regional body and their domestication by member countries. Without the active participation of its owners, implementation — and the organisation itself — remained weak.

Accountability started from below — from civil society pressure on the body to equip its regional court with powers of enforcement; from regional parliaments holding their executive leaderships to account; and from the institutionalisation of the participation of civil society, the private sector, and parliamentarians in the body's decision-making.

It has also been proposed that the SADC Parliamentary Forum be changed into a regional parliament in order to foster greater accountability among the region's heads of state and government.

The leaders themselves should encourage more participatory governance, attending heads of state summits and reporting back on these meetings. The government should further secure the participation of civil society by ensuring it is adequately funded.

But perhaps most importantly, efforts to promote more accountable region-building require a sea-change in the attitudes of national leaders in Southern Africa.

Ditlhake recalled a meeting convened at the African Union to discuss the pan-African Parliament. One by one the leaders of the SADC countries stood up, asserted their sovereignty and refused the authority of such a parliament in their region.

But leaders can be removed when citizen take greater responsibility for their political fate.

So, although Africa often turns a deaf ear to its own — icons such as Kwame Nkrumah who led the drive for a united states of Africa more than 50 years ago — the realisation may still dawn among Southern Africa's leaders that development depends on giving up national pride for African pride.

Mark Paterson

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