South Africa is now the stabilising factor among the ‘frontline states’ that opposed apartheid.
The Southern African Development Community heads of state summit taking place in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on August 17 and 18 is historic in many ways. Among them is the fact that it is now 20 years since the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
SADC’s roots lie in the “frontline states” – a grouping of Southern African countries including Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.
The frontline states were formed as a group in the mid-1970s to co-ordinate their responses to colonialism and apartheid, and to formulate a uniform policy for the governments of South Africa, South West Africa (now Namibia) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), as well as the liberation movements in or from those countries.
Their vision was a Southern Africa free of colonialism and apartheid. Yet, by then, all the countries in the region were economically dependent on South Africa, and large numbers of their people worked as migrant labourers on South African mines and farms.
Although the democratisation of South Africa under Nelson Mandela was celebrated as a triumph of good over evil across the world, in Southern Africa it was received with a combination of enthusiasm and cautious optimism.
Each of those countries had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with South Africa, being to one degree or another economically dependent on it, yet at war with it. This also drove the “détente” between South Africa and other states such as Zambia (1975) and Mozambique (1984).
Apartheid South Africa had fuelled the Mozambican civil war of 1975 to 1992 by supporting Renamo against the liberation Frelimo government, leaving the country extremely underdeveloped and with a million dead.
In Angola, the apartheid regime supported Jonas Savimbi’s Unita against the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government in one of Africa’s longest civil wars, which also caused untold suffering. Every country in the region bears direct scars caused by the apartheid regime that perceived its surrounding neighbourhood as an area for penetration, exploitation and destabilisation.
Except for Malawi under Kamuzu Banda, the SADC countries supported South Africa’s liberation movements, particularly the ANC and its military wing. This bold, sacrificial decision left those countries open to South African aggression.
When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the frontline states morphed into the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference, aiming to promote their own development, free themselves from South Africa’s economic hegemony and add to the isolation of apartheid South Africa.
It is ironic that the current SADC summit is taking place in Victoria Falls, where South African prime minister John Vorster first met Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda in 1975, in a train halfway across the border between Zambia and what was then Rhodesia.
Victoria Falls was also a key site in the Wankie campaigns that began in 1967, when Umkhonto weSizwe and Zanu’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army units, penetrated Rhodesia to start a guerrilla war against white-ruled Rhodesia. They were routed.
Twenty years since the end of apartheid, South Africa is no longer the region’s most destabilising and destructive power, but now attends the SADC summit as the organisation’s most active peacemaker. Improvements in the Democratic Republic of Congo were boosted by South Africa’s mediation and facilitation processes that led to elections in 2011 (though disputed), and its role in the military intervention that stopped the M23 rebels from terrorising the eastern regions of the country in 2013.
Recently, President Jacob Zuma was in Lesotho in an effort to help this troubled neighbour, whose coalition government is paralysed. Zimbabwe owes its current stability largely to South Africa’s benevolence, through a SADC-endorsed mediation process.
Not only did South Africa help its northern neighbour to face more than a decade of economic and political meltdown, it has also accepted Zimbabwean economic refugees who strain its own resources.
Economic transformation is the theme of this summit. Leaders will be talking about “leveraging the region’s diverse resources for sustainable economic and social development through value addition and beneficiation”, as the documentation has it.
The theme of economic transformation resonates with the aspirations of the founding fathers of the region’s polities, as well as the emotive issues that inspired the liberation movements. Southern Africa has most of the world’s precious minerals, among other resources, yet the vast bulk of its estimated 280-million people are poor.
The region is now largely at peace. Thus, SADC’s revised harmonised Strategic Indicative Plan of the organ on politics, defence and security co-operation should be urgently implemented to improve security and channel resources towards development.
The region’s development agenda should also go hand in glove with increased democratisation and inclusivity, which would promote co-operation for the mutual benefit of all the nations’ citizens.
Twenty years since apartheid’s demise, the region needs to pool its resources to deal with the prevailing challenges of poverty and inequality.
Webster Zambara is a senior project leader for Southern Africa at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town