The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is an inter-state organisation based in Gaborone, Botswana that pursues a comprehensive regional integration agenda through both socio-economic and political cooperation. This year represents a turning point in the socio-economic programme of the Southern African Development Community. The launch of the Tripartite Free Trade Area and a pivotal overhaul in socio-economic integration strategy make 2015 a seminal year in the evolution of the SADC and present a choice opportunity for an extended series of briefs. This is the first of four briefs. In it, I chart the history and development of the SADC from its inception in the regional liberation struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s. In the second, I explicate the institutional framework and decision-making structure of the organisation. In the third, I outline the many problems that the SADC has encountered in pursuing its economic integration agenda in the last decade. And in the fourth and last, I discuss what measures the SADC has taken this year to overcome these obstacles, and evaluate their prospects for success.

The Frontline States

The roots of the SADC lie in the political liberation movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s—from both colonialism and white-minority governments—that swept through southern Africa.  During this period, the leaders of Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia formed a loose political coalition known as the Frontline States (FLS).  

FLS members agreed to coordinate their political, diplomatic and military resources in order to help further decolonisation and effectively combat the destabilising and expansionist agendas of the oppressive, retrograde and racially discriminatory regimes in South Africa and the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). 

On the 1st April 1980, FLS leaders together with representatives of Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and the newly liberated Zimbabwe came together in Lusaka, Zambia to adopt the Lusaka Declaration (‘Southern Africa: toward Economic Liberation’[1]) and establish the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC).  

The Southern African Development Coordination Conference

The primary objectives of the SADCC were to coordinate the economic and diplomatic resources of its members so as to: 

i) Reduce members’ dependence, particularly but not only, on apartheid South Africa

ii) Create links and strengthen relationships between members to contribute to equitable regional economic integration

iii) Promote the implementation of policies that would have an interstate and regional impact

iv) Attain and secure international support for the SADCC’s quest for economic liberation and self-reliance in the region[2].  

The SADCC therefore both consolidated and complimented the FLS.  It widened and strengthened the regional alliance that was coordinating resources in the struggle against apartheid South Africa with the addition of four new members.  Further, this struggle was now not limited only to the political field but was a broader, more multi-faceted alliance with a newly created substructure entirely dedicated to socio-economic development and economic resource coordination.  

The stated objectives of this body signified a shared recognition between members that the future prosperity of the region would have a substantial determining effect on the future prosperity of any one individual country, and a consequent and committed shared intent to work together to ensure that future regional prosperity would therefore be realised.  

The SADCC Framework

The SADCC operated within a decentralised framework with each member state assuming complete responsibility for the coordination, administration and project implementation of one or more of the 21 different sectors—for example, Swaziland had responsibility for the Human Resources Development sector, whilst Zambia handled Employment as well as Labour and Mining[3].  It was felt that this decentralised division of labour would give each member an equal standing in the SADCC hierarchy, not to mention preventing the need for a large and expensive bureaucracy that would have followed from any centralised governing institution.  However, as member states were legally responsible for their projects, the SADCC did not itself have any legal status[4].  


In 1989, leaders of the SADCC meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe decided that the SADCC should be formalised and ratified with “an Agreement, Charter or Treaty”[5].  On 17th August 1992, at a Summit held in Windhoek, Namibia, the Heads of State and Government of SADCC member states as well as of Namibia—which had gained independence from apartheid South Africa’s mandate two years earlier—signed the SADC Treaty and Declaration; establishing the formation of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).  

The creation of the SADC was largely motivated by two primary geopolitical factors.  On the one hand, it had become increasingly apparent by the end of the 1980’s that the apartheid government in South Africa was losing its hegemonic grip on the country.  Namibia’s achieving independence from three quarters of a century of South African rule, and the swearing in of Sam Nujoma as the first democratically elected President of Namibia on 21st March 1990—in a ceremony attended by Nelson Mandela, a month after being released from his 27 year imprisonment—suggested that the prospect of free and fair elections in South Africa had become a very real, almost tangible, possibility.  Leaders therefore recognised that an independent Namibia and a future South Africa governed by majority rule would have to be considered and included into any regional agenda.  

On the other hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th November 1989 and the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of an international trend toward neo-liberalism.  This brought with it the subsequent challenges of globalization, privatisation and competitive regional markets, and leaders realised that they had to respond in kind.  The establishment of a legally binding regional politico-economic bloc would not only enable members to more effectively encourage and support each other in reforming their economies, liberalising trade, fostering private sector growth and attracting foreign investment, but also allow the region to compete globally as an economy of scale.  

The SADC therefore differed significantly from its predecessor.  Whereas the latter was an informal association of neighbouring states whose shared aim was largely the coordination of national affairs in a regional context for mutual benefit, the former represented a legally established inter-state organisation that pursued a comprehensive regional integration agenda to foster socio-economic growth, respond to the many challenges of neoliberalism and compete internationally as a global player.  

In 1994, following the fall of Apartheid and the first free, fair and non-racial general elections on 27th April, South Africa was admitted to the SADC.  Mauritius joined a year later in 1995, the Seychelles and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1998, and Madagascar in 2005.  This brought the total number of member states to fifteen.

2001 Restructuring

On the 9th March 2001, SADC Heads of State and Government met at an Extra-ordinary Summit in Windhoek, Namibia and agreed to implement a number of institutional changes in SADC structure.  Chief among these was the adoption of a new centralised approach—with a SADC Secretariat based in Gaborone, Botswana to be effected immediately.  

SADC leaders had recognised that the decentralised cooperation framework inherited from the SADCC could not effectively support the ambitious integration agenda of the SADC, and in fact arguably worked against it.  Lacking a centralised structure monitored by a rules-based mechanism within which policy directors were complied to operate, SADC objectives too often and too easily played second fiddle to national interests.  As one commentator remarked, “the policy organs, in form of the Summit and Council, assumed a role of both a player and referee in the integration game”[6].  Centralisation was seen as necessary to ensuring that regional objectives were adhered to.  

Also of significance was the approval of the following two strategic plans: the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP) and the Strategic Indicative Plan for the Organ (SIPO).  The purpose of the RISDP is to deepen regional integration.  It is the framework in which the SADC pursues its socio-economic objectives. It highlights poverty eradication, gender equality and the fight against the HIV/AIDS as among the most important policies under the SADC’s remit[7].

The purpose of the SIPO is to be an “enabling instrument”[8] used to contribute towards the creation and maintenance of peace and security in the region in order for the SADC to effectively meet its socio-economic objectives.  The SIPO provides the implementation framework in which the SADC’s defence and security body—the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation—operates.  It complements the security role played by the African Union and emphasises the areas of the Standby Force, the safe-guarding of democracy, human rights, and the fight against corruption as of particular importance.  

The next brief in this series will deal with the mission and vision of the SADC and its institutional and decision-making structure.


Andrew Barlow