The Support-A-Dictator Community

The SADC represents political elites who are intent on hanging on to power by hook or by crook.

SOUTH AFRICA’S disastrous foray into Lesotho could prove a landmark in the evolution of its still inchoate foreign policy. Anxious not to be seen as a regional bully, South Africa has attempted to act as far as possible within the framework of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This has not really worked.

SADC was formed as an association of anti-apartheid front-line states attempting to achieve a degree of economic autonomy through the exclusion of commerce with South Africa. In this it was outstandingly unsuccessful — virtually all the SADC states cheated and their trade with South Africa actually grew. At the same time SADC structures were breathtakingly incompetent. not surprisingly, since most of the participant states were small, gimcrack creations where the ruling elite’s first XI entered their (shaky) governments, with the second and third teams sent to run the parastatals, civil service and to represent their countries abroad. SADC got the fourth XI, including players capable of losing matches even when the opposition do not turn up.

Theoretically, SADC was founded by progressive states intent on achieving democracy throughout the region. In practice the culture of SADC was authoritarian, reflecting the dominance within it of one-party state quasi-monarchs such as Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda. They were joined by such natural despots as Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma, not to mention the MPLA and Frelimo governments of Angola and Mozambique that assumed for decades that their military conquest of power excused them from the need to hold elections. Thus, SADC is a regional association of political elites intent on hanging onto their power bases by hook or by crook and profoundly suspicious of elements who demand truly free and fair elections and kick up a fuss when they do not get them.

For SADC — like the OAU — is a legitimist body in the same strict sense as a medieval association of princelings: it favours the man in possession (it is always a man) whoever he is and however he got there. It is not part of African chiefly tradition to raise such queries about other chiefs. The point is that they are chiefs and that all chiefs should recognize one another and stand together. The minute a Laurent Kabila takes over in the Congo, irrespective of whether he got there by the use of foreign mercenaries, he is accepted as a brother chief and will be defended against any other insurgents — even though the latter have exactly the same claim to rule by force majeure as he has.

So it is difficult to imagine a body less well equipped than SADC to deal with the knotty questions surrounding the disputed election in Lesotho. When South Africa’s Pius Langa reported that the election was deeply flawed his report was repeatedly suppressed by Mandela and Mbeki in apparent deferrence to SADC sensibilities. Ultimately it was crudely doctored so as to remove the suggestion that there was anything seriously wrong with the election. From SADC’s point of view, any party or prime minister that had landed up in power in Maseru was, by definition, legitimate. SADC could hardly pay attention to the furious protests of Lesotho’s Opposition parties for in that case almost every election within SADC would qualify for the Langa treatment. The trouble this guaranteed only became fully visible when the invading South African forces could not find a government supporter in sight and faced an apparently solid wall of furious Opposition voters.

The South African government, much injured by local and world reaction to the invasion, continued to insist, without much success, that it was a SADC invasion. But the rest of the world regarded SADC as little more than a figleaf for South Africa. Was not South Africa the overwhelming regional power? Didn’t it entirely surround Lesotho? And weren’t South African troops doing most of the fighting? Inevitably, the international press continued to refer to it simply as “the South African invasion”.The country’s attempts not to look like the regional bully had failed.

South Africa should now ask whether there is much point going on with SADC. The organisation constrains rather than assists South African foreign policy. It has not managed to reach consensus on the key trade and development issues. Even over the Congo it found it impossible to develop a truly united approach. And it costs money.

South Africa should abandon SADC, accept that it is the region’s leader and not be afraid of that. Instead, it should build a cohesive bloc out of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) that accords free trade between South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland, with a programme for the gradual admission of other states, very much on the model of the European Union.

First, however, SACU should adopt a charter giving prominence to human rights, free and fair elections and democratic governance, so that each new entrant would be signing on to a properly democratic dispensation in just the way that each new EU applicant does. If something as constructive as this were to emerge from the ashes of Maseru all would not be lost.