High noon for Southern Africa

A series of seminal events has occurred in Southern Africa in the last three months.

A series of seminal events have occurred in Southern Africa since the last issue of Focus in June. Each has the power to radically alter the lives of people in the region. A common developmental theme links them, however. Thus the collective import for the region was - and still is - potentially momentous.

One of the events is the food crisis that is directly threatening the lives of 13 million people in no less than seven countries in the region: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. It challenges the neighbourly solidarity and humanity of the three countries that are relatively safe from agonies of severe hunger: South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

As the crisis gathered momentum and international relief agencies moved with increasing urgency to avert it, South Africa hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The chronological and geographical proximity of the food crisis to the UN conference in Johannesburg gave direct urgency to the deliberations of the thousands of delegates from around the globe.

Though drought was a major cause of the crisis, governments in the affected countries could not escape culpability. They had contributed to the crisis either by their misguided policies (driving productive farmers off the land because of their skin colour or recklessly selling off the grain reserves) or by failing to anticipate and prepare for inclement weather (drought is not an unusual phenomenon in Southern Africa). It added a political dimension to the summit discussions. So, too, did the accusations that the European Union and the United States had urged developing countries to eschew state regulation of their economies while themselves paying huge annual subsidies to their farmers.

Another of the interrelated events referred to earlier was the formal dissolution in Durban in July of the Organisation of African Unity and the formation of the African Union. The AU, as the African Union was christened, committed itself to the defence of democracy and human rights and its founding constitution included a clause providing for intervention in the affairs of member states if democracy was under threat within their borders.

The AU's recognition that good governance was vital to Africa if it was to escape the seemingly endless cycle of poverty, violence, war and coup d'etats was endorsed by its organisational sibling, the New Partnership for Africa's Development. Nepad sought to win the support of the world's richest countries for its quest to make the 21st century the African Century. Nepad undertook as a quid pro quo for their assistance (in terms of investment and more generous trade agreements) to make good governance a condition for admission to its ranks.

It is apposite to sound a warning. The acceptance by the AU of dictators into its ranks as political brethren does little to commend it as an organisation genuinely committed to democracy. By the same token the reluctance of the AU or Nepad to publicly dissociate themselves from Robert Mugube's brazen implementation of ethnic cleansing as a political weapon against white farmers is hardly an auspicious sign.

Closer to home the ANC-led government, having used its majority to secure parliamentary approval for its controversial and dirigste Minerals and Petroleum Bill, drafted a mining charter that prescribed that 51 per cent of the mining industry should be in the hands of "historically disadvantaged South Africans" within 10 years. When details of the charter were leaked the reaction of the markets was stupefying: billions of rands were wiped off the share value of the major South African mining corporations.

Investors saw it as evidence that expropriation and/or nationalisation was on the ANC's agenda, as the beneficiaries were undoubtedly not able to pay the more than R300 billion that 51 per cent of the mining industry would cost.

The response of the markets to the draft mining charter was a clear warning that investors might direct their money away from South Africa to safer and more profitable regions. The warning was amplified at home: without major investment the mining industry would contract drastically, with appalling consequences for the huge number of black people who are directly or indirectly dependent on the mines for their daily bread.

The ANC seems to have been temporarily persuaded not to advance further down that path. But it is possible that it has merely conducted a tactical retreat and is marshalling its forces for another foray into dangerous terrain. Transformation is a fine-sounding shibboleth. But if pursued recklessly, it can lead to disastrous results for South Africa.