30 Years of the Southern African Development Community: What's to Celebrate?

By Michelle Pressend · 25 Aug 2010

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Picture: IRIN
Picture: IRIN

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) celebrated its 30th anniversary at this year’s SADC Summit on the 16th and 17th of August in Windhoek, Namibia. While heads of state congratulated themselves for achievements such as peace and stability - a prerequisite for sustained economic growth - in the region, the reality on the ground contrasts with their embellished sense of accomplishment.

Of approximately 250 million citizens in the SADC, 80% have no access to modern energy and depend on wood for fuel, while 45% live on the poverty line and at least as many are unemployed. 

The instability, incidents of violence and unrest in Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the coup d’état in Madagascar are all cause for concern, but somehow SADC Heads of States are incapable of taking the hard decisions needed to bring stability and justice to the people of these countries. 

They have deferred the ruling by the SADC tribunal court on Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme for review and discussion to the next Summit in 2011 -- clearly demonstrating an unwillingness to deal with the problematic leader. The current ruling is in favour of farmers returning to land seized via Mugabe’s land reform programme. 

Moreover, SADC leaders are bent on the “free trade” paradigm believing that regional integration based on this system will lead to development. Regrettably, their response to overcoming trade barriers is narrowly focused on issues such as tariffs, non-tariff barriers and supply-side constraints, such as transport and infrastructure.

To their detriment, they ignore the economic asymmetry in and amongst SADC members where there is heavy dependence on the export of primary commodities against the import of basic goods and services from South Africa, other emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India as well as industrialised countries. In addition, there is a dependence on revenue from tariffs that is widely documented. But rarely is the nature of free trade and its assumptions challenged.  

Worse still, some countries in the SADC have signed Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with the European Union. EPAs are strongly resisted by South Africa and Namibia predominantly for the “most favoured nation” clause, which privileges European countries in trade relations, while undermining South-South collaboration.

This has divided the SADC into two groups. Countries like Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland that have signed the interim EPAs, have signed away their “policy space.” These agreements are likely to go beyond trade in goods, and ongoing negotiations will include sectors like services, public procurement, investments and intellectual property rights.

Free trade is reciprocal by its nature, meaning that when one country gives something, the other must endeavour to give the same in return. This sounds fine in theory, but in practice, countries have different productive capacities as well as varying social and economic needs. Inevitably, weaker countries suffer because they cannot compete in a purely market-driven economic system.

There are also power interests at play. Elites and corporations have benefitted from trade liberalisation, which has had a devastating impact on weaker economies that do not have a competitive advantage. These include greater job losses, the decimation of small-scale farmers by import surges, and the exploitation of natural resources, amongst other negative impacts on the development of the region.

Yet, at the SADC Summit, leaders further agreed to extend the free trade area with two other African blocs - the East African Community and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. 

With all these different trading configurations, a common approach will be extremely difficult to achieve.

Moreover, SADC leaders also came to the simplistic and inadequate conclusion that “deeper integration (simply) requires integrated and efficient infrastructure.” To enhance these, the summit identified interventions in the form of transport, information and communication technology, energy and water. 

What is of greater concern is that this incoherence resonates in civil society groups that have specifically been established to engage with the SADC.

A few days prior to the official summit, two civil society groups met to discuss their concerns and place demands on SADC governments. Civil society groups are largely split between a grassroots network, the Southern Africa People’s Solidarity Network (SAPSN), and another group comprising NGOs, church and labour groups (SADC Council of NGOs/Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa/Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council). The two groups met separately at the 6th SADC People’s Summit and 6th Civil Society Forum, respectively.

Both groups highlight some common concerns, however, crucial discussions on trade and EPAs resulted in the transmission of different messages from the groups. 

With respect to areas of concurrence, both meetings emphasised the climate and financial crises as bringing further instability to the region and called for a coordinated and cooperative response to these crises. Both meetings condemned human rights violations in Zimbabwe, the DRC, Swaziland and Madagascar.

And both meetings also noted concerns about the free trade of goods and services being prioritised at the expense of the free movement of the people from the region. Participants felt strongly that black people are more discriminated against than white people at borders and further highlighted the challenges of visa requirements. 

However, the People’s Summit supported, “the rejection of all free trade agreements and especially the EU-imposed EPAs, which are dividing and threatening the very survival and future development of the Southern African Customs Union and the SADC.”

While the Civil Society Forum recognised that “the current model of regional economic integration…premised on (the) liberalization of trade and investments, has not translated into improved standards of living for the people of the region,” but still called on governments to fully implement the SADC Protocols on trade, which are essentially premised on the free trade paradigm. Some of these organisations even appear to be in favour of EPAs and of engaging with neoliberal institutions like the World Trade Organization. 

Declarations on their own will do very little to change things or bring about social and economic justice. They certainly do not hold governments accountable. But conflicting declarations undermine collective goals towards social justice and building regional solidarity. 

In both the SADC and among regional civil society structures, the inclination towards nationalism and a divided understanding on the implications of “free trade” has undermined this solidarity.

After years of engaging with these issues, the SADC and regional civil society appear bogged by inertia. Thabo Mbeki’s dream of an “African Renaissance” remains a mere apparition. 

Both governments and civil society in the region exhibit high levels of weakness. Regional civil society remains complacent, disempowered and unorganised, while governments continue to make policies in a vacuum that still only benefit the elites and ruling classes.

There’s not much to celebrate after 30 years of the SADC.

Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.

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Rory Short
28 Aug

Self Standing Independence

To enter into any kind of agreement with success the first requirement is that the participants have to be possessed of self standing and independent mindsets. Any participant who is not possessed of such a mindset is bound to lose out in the long run. Participants not possessed of such a mindset are liable to see themselves as victims of their circumstances rather than the agents of their own futures. African leaders in general seem to be of the victim rather than the self standing independent mindset. Whilst this remains the situation Africa will never escape from poverty.

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