/ 18 May 2022

Why opposition party solidarity matters in the SADC

Maimane: You Will Vote To Keep A 'thief' In Office
Former South African opposition leader Mmusi Maimane.

Recently, Mmusi Maimane tweeted #Shutdown Zimbabwe against what he characterised as “suppression of the rights of the people, including the right to protest”.

The responses to the tweet were somewhat mixed. Although some welcomed the message of solidarity as an acknowledgement of a regional crisis, others dismissed this, highlighting Western interference. To date, opposition parties on the continent have faced challenges, and such perceptions have often led to intolerance of the opposition.

The view that opposition leaders should not interfere raises the following question: what role do opposition parties play in holding governing parties accountable in the region? Undoubtedly, the growing risk of conflict spilling over to other countries in the region demonstrates the need for opposition parties to hold the ruling parties accountable. 

In the past decade, “armed insurgencies, social cleavages and governance deficits relating to authoritarian rule and state resource abuse have gradually undermined the region’s peace and stability”.

Although Southern Africa has long been considered the most stable and peaceful region on the continent, political developments in eSwatini, Zimbabwe and the insurgency in Mozambique confirm one truism of African politics: African leaders lack accountability. 

There are two takeaways from this. First, there is a growing sense of the need for solid opposition solidarity to hold governing parties to account. Second, there is a potential need for a regional opposition party platform to support democratic political parties, promote a peaceful interaction between parties and strengthen the democratic political and legal environment.

Opposition parties play an essential role in strengthening democracy, significantly when the government does not restrict the role of the opposition party. At the same time, where the political agora is closed, solidarity can be the all-important factor in the internationalisation of issues. 

This solidarity was influential in the struggle for independence and, more than ever, has become necessary. The Economic Freedom Fighters’ solidarity protests at the eSwatini border indicate the opposition parties’ role in raising awareness about the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) problems. Undoubtedly, the potential risk of conflict spilling over to other countries has grown, and the immigration situation in South Africa is one example of the above. 

Significance of regional solidarity

The 1960s witnessed the suppression and banning of most liberation political movements, ending in exile, to the extent that its political leaders were considered terrorists. From this backdrop, regional and international solidarity in Southern Africa’s liberation struggles became an essential factor in the fight for independence. 

Solidarity movements were constituent of a worldwide mobilisation of solidarity with Southern African liberation struggles that “traversed national boundaries, bridged domestic divides and gathered mass support from ordinary people on political and moral grounds”.

These constituted international organisations such as the United Nations, governments, the Organisation of African Unity, NGOs, front line states and individuals. The contribution of this international solidarity raised awareness of the injustices perpetrated by colonial governments. Consequently, such actions and campaigns pressured colonial governments to negotiate with liberation movements, resulting in political settlements. 

Likewise, solidarity among opposition parties in the region is crucial in enabling these parties and their leaders to remain firm on the rights of their people, improving the culture of accountability, and minimising the loss of life, especially when exercising their rights to protest. In the past decade, SADC has been criticised for turning a blind eye to the state-sponsored violence in member states such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, eSwatini, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Although the liberation movement solidarity has become an obstacle to the demands of accountability to governing parties, it is essential to emphasise that it was instrumental in the fight for independence. From this background, there is a need for a regional opposition party platform to support democratic political parties, promote a peaceful interaction between parties and strengthen the democratic political and legal environment. 

This platform can amplify the voices of citizens, who are often ignored and oppressed in their countries. I argue that this is the alternative that the region needs to stand up for constitutional rule. Citizens distrust institutions such as the SADC, which has rubber-stamped controversial elections that have contributed to the current problems faced by the region.

What role can the opposition party platform play in improving accountability?

In Uganda, the arrest of Ssentamu Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, in 2018 had the regional and international community throwing their weight behind the need to respect the civil rights of political actors. Demonstrators led protests in neighbouring Kenya and the #FreeBobiWine solidarity protests gained regional and international support. 

Solidarity messages from opposition leaders in the region demonstrated the reach and ability of the opposition to push for democratic change and accountability, which is what the SADC region needs.  

The key roles an opposition party platform can play include:

  • Raising awareness: This can ensure that issues concerning peace and security are discussed. It can pre-empt violent eruptions by addressing early warning signs of conflict as it is supposed to do; 
  • Promote a culture of accountability and monitor the integrity of elections over an extended period: The region’s elections have often been rubber-stamped by SADC despite opposition parties’ concerns about their legitimacy. The platform can push for a regional conversation while enhancing a culture of democratic discourse. This can foster regional debate on the region’s current issues; and
  • Use modern communication methods to counter disinformation: Authoritarian regimes have often shut down the internet during political turmoil, resulting in information wars. An alternative platform can ensure that there will be transparency when atrocities occur. 

Ultimately, solidarity among opposition parties in the region can contribute to strengthening and consolidating democracy in the region. At this point, the platform can help warn the region of the potential consequences of autocratic behaviour by member states and the risk it carries to SADC peace and stability. Such a regional platform could potentially jolt SADC to respond to the region’s issues more swiftly. 

Tinashe Sithole is a PhD candidate, visiting research fellow and political analyst at the University of Johannesburg’s department of politics and international relations.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do  not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.