Home|[in] focus|Ticking Obligatory Boxes? South Africa’s Chairship of SADC 2017-2018
Categories: [in] focus

by Institute for Global Dialogue


Categories: [in] focus

by Institute for Global Dialogue



South Africa is headed for the conclusion of its chairship of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in August 2018. President Cyril Ramaphosa made an inaugural tour of the region following his ascendancy into the Presidency after the resignation of President Jacob Zuma on 14 February 2018. The three stops of the working visit to Angola, Namibia, and Botswana allowed Ramaphosa to rekindle friendships and reintroduce himself for the first time as the President of South Africa and chairperson of the regional body, with South Africa having assumed chairship of SADC in August 2017. The seamless transition, handover, and continuity from Mr Jacob Zuma his predecessor in the presidency of the republic was lauded both at home in South Africa as well as across the continent. The seasoned politician and statesman was already familiar within the region as a former SADC facilitator to the beleaguered Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.

South Africa’s chairship of SADC continues where Swaziland left-off in August 2017, further attempting to implement the regional body’s main policy instruments under the theme “Partnering with the Private Sector in Developing Industry and Regional Value Chains”. Industrialisation has long been identified as a priority for the region and the symbiotic relationship between infrastructure development and the former cannot be overstated. Moreover, the interdependence and success between the two programmes hinges on the involvement of a vigorous and hands-on private sector hence a special mention of business in the current theme. Despite registered progress at programmatic level in areas such as infrastructure, many of the overarching SADC milestones remain either delayed or totally missed. Three of the most notable delays include failure in achieving a Common Market (2015), Monetary Union (2016), as well as a Single-currency/Economic Union (2018).  

Nevertheless, South Africa has been entrusted with the duty of entrenching the two main objectives of; Institutionalisation of the Relationship between Government and the Private Sector, and the Operationalisation of the SADC adopted Industrialisation Policy as well as its costed action plan. Three areas of focus have been identified within the Regional Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap (RISR), namely; agro-processing, mineral beneficiation, and manufacturing. Whilst there are numerous projects within the regional structure, a few on the infrastructure front stand out. The Lesotho Water Transfer Scheme under the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM) has seen the ratification of the agreement for this water sharing project by Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. The project aims at sourcing water from the Lesotho Highlands to Botswana. The passage of the water logically goes through South Africa since Botswana does not share any borders with Lesotho. There are indications that the pipeline for the project will launch from Johannesburg, joining existing water infrastructure and not connect directly with the Lesotho Highlands. Funding for the project has been secured via the African Development Bank (AfDB). The private sector is also involved in the project with De Beers in Botswana having facilitated some of the earliest meetings on the project. The second important project to note is the Inter-state Natural Gas Committee that aims at facilitating for the gas exploitation regime to contribute towards the broader regional energy mix. The AfDB is providing technical assistance for the project. It is also hoped that these developments will pave way for the establishment of a Regional Development Fund (RDF), which will steer the regional bloc away from borrowing funds from international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Meanwhile President Ramaphosa announced during South Africa’s State of the Nation Address in February (SONA) that the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement (TFTA) has been ratified by 26 countries. This brings together SADC, Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the East African Community (EAC).  A total of 625 million people and a $1 trillion combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) form the aggregate from this agreement. The linkage between the TFTA and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is readily discernable. On 21 March 2018, at a gathering in Kigali, Rwanda, 44 of the 55 members of the African Union signed the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).  The objectives of the AfCFTA entail, inter alia, creating a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments, and thus pave the way for accelerating the establishment of the Continental Customs Union and the African Customs Union. This new development is planned to expand intra African trade through better harmonization and coordination of trade liberalization and facilitation regimes and instruments across Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and across Africa in general. This accelerated integration would resolve a number of challenges including multiple and overlapping memberships. 

Parallel initiatives in the front of peace building and conflict resolution continue earnestly with talks for holding the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) elections being fast-tracked. The delayed election and continued instability in the eastern DRC continue to be a cause for concern. Some within the community have argued that the DRC has received preferential treatment following the country’s failure to hold elections in December 2016 after the end of President Kabila’s final two-term mandate. As of June 2018, no elections have been held in the massive central African country. Questions arise as to why SADC has not expedited the suspension of the DRC. It is worth recalling that SADC was swift to suspend Madagascar in 2009 based on the latter’s alleged unconstitutional change of government. However, any observer of politics of the region would agree that the story of the DRC is not a simple one as it involves a number of regional and international players who seem to have an interest in the on-going instability in this African country. At the moment it remains daunting to imagine a post-Kabila DRC and the restoration of order in the country seems larger than SADC’s remit. The country is nominally a unitary state with the central government not in full charge of the polity in its entirety. On the other hand, work is still in progress regarding implementation of the SADC recommendations after the 2017 general election in Lesotho. On the latter, the priority is putting Lesotho on a peaceful and stable footing, which includes reforms on the constitution and the security sector. One idea that has not yet been broached and explored from a security perspective is that of dissolving the Lesotho military force permanently and ceding the country’s safety and defence responsibilities to SADC. Most accounts point at the jostling for control of the Lesotho military as the fundamentally disruptive factor that has led to elusive peace and stability in the Mountain Kingdom. Lastly, it is still unclear as to how far the process of admitting Burundi as a member of SADC is, this is work in progress. If domestic instability is the major issue delaying admission of Burundi into the regional body then this factor makes the latter indistinguishable from the DRC. The next SADC’s Summit of Heads of State then needs to revisit the regional body’s position on Burundi, at the moment it remains unclear as to what the outstanding issues are. 

As South Africa relinquishes the chairship in two months-time, questions on the implementation of the regional body’s priorities before handing over the chairship to Namibia this coming August remain. The pressing question remains that of unmet targets and deadlines. Most SADC members appear to be preoccupied with their own domestic politics, which robs the regional body of focus and undivided attention from leaders. The discrepancies in political, cultural, and economic development amongst members become impediments to the realisation of advanced regional integration. Without tangible material transformation and change for the people on the ground, SADC engagements merely become an exercise of ticking boxes for politicians. However, it stands indisputable that delivery on the infrastructure and industrialisation combination will fundamentally transform the region and this requires vibrant and resolute leadership from the part of governments and the private sector. 


Dr Mabutho Shangase is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy.


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