A Case for Closer Integration between South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland?

By Glenn Ashton · 18 Jun 2012

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Picture: Pic: Mart Bouter/worldofmaps.net
Picture: Pic: Mart Bouter/worldofmaps.net

South Africa looms large in the affairs of the Kingdoms of Swaziland and Lesotho, the local geo-political giant. Economically, each receives disproportionate amounts of their annual GDP directly from South Africa. Each is profoundly reliant on their powerful neighbour for the supply of food, fuel, goods and services and linking infrastructure to the world.

Given the vision of an African Union and increasing rapprochement between the members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) it is perhaps a good time to consider the closer integration of two smallest regional nations with their dominant neighbour.

Swaziland and Lesotho each have proud histories, initially for their wily opposition to both Boer and Brit. They managed to play one foe off against the other in order to survive as later bulwarks against apartheid. They each paid heavily for assisting the struggle against the racist South African regime.

Ironically the apartheid government was legally obliged to continue supporting them financially through the historical 1910 Southern African Customs Union (SACU) agreement. This obliges South Africa to pay the smaller, landlocked states a disproportionate amount of the total income earned through collection of customs and excise revenue.

Around 95% of that amount originates from South Africa but under the terms of the SACU agreement, it retains less than 50% after distribution to the SACU partners; Lesotho and Swaziland as well as Botswana and Namibia. In this way the funds from SACU provide around 60% of total revenue of both Lesotho and Swaziland, indicating how critical this income is to their economic viability.

The relationships between Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa were close enough to consider dissolving borders in the past – the primary stumbling block was the racist nature of South Africa’s government. Because of this, Britain, the colonial power, along with the leadership of those nations, was leery of integration. Accordingly they gained full independence.

It is notable that neither Lesotho nor Swaziland contain the entire population of either the amaSwati or abaSotho nations. This is particularly so in the case of Lesotho, with baSotho people surrounding Lesotho, from the borderlands of the Eastern Cape, through the Orange Free State and up into Gauteng. The political borders remain colonial era artefacts, influenced more by geography and historical pragmatism than by the locations of clan, culture and tribe.

The linguistic boundaries are far more indicative of cultural affiliations. SeSotho is estimated to be spoken by 3.5 million South Africans, against around 2 million speakers inside Lesotho. SiSwati is spoken by over a million South Africans, slightly fewer in Swaziland. These numbers illustrated the extensive overlaps of cultural roots across national boundaries.

It is equally notable that Swaziland and Lesotho collectively account for more than 35% of South African tourism numbers. It is absurd to presume that these two nations provide more than a third of what are conventionally considered to be tourists. Lesotho provides around 2.5 million visits per year, from a total population of 2.2 million. Swaziland provides 1.2 million visits from 1.2 million residents.

This is clearly not tourism but something else entirely. Lesotho, with a per capita GDP of just over R8000, is not so much providing 2.5 tourists but rather visitors who travel to trade, visit family and clans, to work and yes, occasionally to just visit. How many residents of Maseru pop across the border to shop in Ladybrand on a Saturday morning? Can we consider these to be tourists? The situation in Swaziland is similar.

The only reason that there are any borders separating Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa is to tally the value of trans-border trade, itself a vain hope. But because these figures are directly relevant to estimating income distribution from within the SACU pool, the borders remain. Without the SACU income, Lesotho and Swaziland would rapidly tend toward failed states. Neither is independently economically viable.

Another commonality is that Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa – as well as Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia - share a common legal history, founded on Roman-Dutch Law, influenced by English and indigenous African law. Judge Schreiner of the Lesotho High Court once referred to these countries as ‘The Southern African Law Association’, given the practice of referring to cross-border case law and the potential for future legal harmonisation. This places this region in a better position than even the EU, which has struggled to harmonise far more diverse legal systems than those of Southern Africa.

While Lesotho is deeply reliant on South Africa, the reverse is increasingly so. The implementation and construction of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) over the past 25 years has seen a mutual agreement to utilise Lesotho’s water resources to supply the sub-continent’s economic engine room, the water-stressed Gauteng region.

The LHWP is one of the world’s largest inter-basin water transfer schemes and has the potential to expand for several more decades. Lesotho is also considering the potential of building pumped storage hydro-electric schemes, to sell green power to the economic giant on its doorstep. This could also be used to store off peak, excess renewable energy such as solar and wind power.

Given the intimacy of the relationship between South Africa and its two smallest neighbours, it appears sensible to explore closer rapprochement between the three nations. While the grand schemes of the African Union are fine and well, imminent resolution to the complexities inherent in creating such a union appear unlikely.

Surely it is far more sensible to start small and build on that, rather than start big and work down? If we can, for instance, demonstrate that it is possible to build a working model of, say a Southern African Union, starting with South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, then it may be more feasible to build on the successes and broaden the concept to other neighbours.

One way to kick off the process would be to permit the free movement of people between these nations. The only complication is that the eastern border of Swaziland, which abuts Mozambique, could be leaky. Yet reduced demands on border policing elsewhere would enable sufficient resources to be re-allocated.
Given that there is already an almost unregulated movement of people between these nations, in the guise of tourism, it appears illogical to not normalise this reality. This could echo the free movement ordained by the EU Schengen agreement.

The movement of goods is equally easily managed – most goods are transported by truck. Again, reallocating resources by formalising open borders would facilitate this shift of priorities, which could in time be scaled down. The present costs of administering this complex border control are unjustifiable and simple cross-subsidisation agreements could readily replace the complex SACU formulas. Closer economic integration would reduce these high administrative costs and liberate resources better employed elsewhere.

The most prickly aspects will certainly relate to the facets of nationalism and self-government.  Swaziland probably presents the greater challenge, given the oppressive control of conservative monarchism there. However the uncomfortable reality is that this faction is rapidly shifting Swaziland toward classification as an economic basket case. Sooner or later South Africa will have to bail out this politically backward monarchy. Swaziland has already burned its bridges with pretty much any other lender of note. It is running out of options and space to negotiate.

Opening up Swaziland to broader economic inclusion within new political and economic alliances is an obvious and overdue solution. Perhaps diplomats are already thinking along these lines. It is difficult to imagine another coherent reason for South Africa’s continued generosity toward the monarchy.

Lesotho has always exhibited a more politically and economically pragmatic stance, primarily through recognition of its peculiar circumstances. It closely co-operated with the apartheid government and international agencies to develop the LHWP. It re-negotiated the SACU agreement and has maintained co-operation with the Southern African common monetary area. While Lesotho has never been nominally colonised – it was only a protectorate – the reality is that it remains intimately interdependent with its regional superpower neighbour.

While a gradual political assimilation of Swaziland and Lesotho may not be immediately possible, it would be unwise not to explore a closer rapprochement and relationship than presently exists. Surely it makes far more sense to build an African Union from the bottom up, rather than from the top down?

The real question is whether the present South African government is either able or adept enough to manage such delicate negotiations. Given the internecine rivalry within the ruling ANC on the one hand, and the singular lack of vision of its nominally leftist partners on the other, a broader, strategic inertia seems to paralyse national leadership. Little or nothing is going to happen before the inevitable machiavellian Mangaung manoeuvres. Our government certainly does not seem about to suddenly project visionary or decisive regional or pan-African leadership.

In this regard, the present ANC leadership almost makes one miss Thabo Mbeki. Despite his shortcomings, Mbeki certainly projected a broader Africanist vision, while the present leadership has remained fixated on political succession and intrigue. It may even be sensible to pull Mbeki out of the shadows and appoint him to manage the closer integration of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Any regional integration cannot be built in the image of South Africa as the regional bully, seeking to usurp the crown from its two neighbouring kingdoms. Rather South Africa should build on its strong, existing relationships with these nation states, recognising the strength of each. Surely this is an overdue dialogue?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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