New Internationalist

A Radical Realignment

Issue 192

They seem to get on well enough. But can the Front Line states really work together to break Pretoria’s grip? Carlos Cardoso assesses the chances of linking the economies of Southern Africa.

new internationalist
issue 192 - February 1989

A radical realignment
They seem to get on well enough. But can the Front Line states really
work together to break Pretoria's grip? Carlos Cardoso assesses the
chances of linking the economies of Southern Africa.

A cow with several heads is munching. Its heads munch here, there, everywhere - all over Southern Africa. From Namibia in the West to Mozambique in the East. But the cow's udders point just one way. Down into South Africa.

The cow, as you have probably guessed, is a metaphor for the economy of Southern Africa. And most of the milk still flows to Pretoria - around $1,000 million a year from the sale of goods and services.

But there is one thing that can change this set-up: the countries in which the cow is munching deciding to work together to redirect the milk so that they all receive some. That decision was taken in April 1980, when the leaders of Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe met and formed the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC).

South Africa did not like it one bit. Pretoria had quite another plan for the region: a 'constellation of states', with South Africa as the epicentre of the African sub-continent. Its neighbours however perceived in this 'constellation' the shape of the old multi-headed cow with its colonial markings.

That SADCC has survived almost nine years is no small feat. For Pretoria has been single-minded in its determination to destroy it. Railways - the first key to Front Line self-reliance - were the main target. By 1985 four of the major trade corridors in Angola and Mozambique were closed or running at a fraction of their capacity because of attacks by South Africa-backed Unita and MNR rebels. This forced Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zaire to trade through South African ports,

This meant big money for South Africa. Train-traffic over the South Africa-Zimbabwe border alone came to more than $200 million a year, exacted in rail and port tariffs.

But then, in 1986, SADCC gathered enough foreign funds to rehabilitate the railroad running from the Mozambican port of Beira across to Zimbabwe. By the end of 1987, 1.85 million tons of cargo were moving along the line. Work also began on two other key Mozambican railroad corridors - the Nacala and the Limpopo - with Zimbabwean and Malawian troops helping to protect the lines from MNR attacks.

But SADCC is not just about railroads and trade. It is also about the forging of political unity, solidarity and trust. Historical similarities help: the states have had struggles against 'common enemies' - be they Portuguese colonialism, white-minority rule in Rhodesia, South African aggression or the Apartheid system itself.

There have, of course, been clashes within SADCC and times when unity was threatened. Mozambique's signing of the infamous Nkomati Accord with South Africa provoked an angry reaction from Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, for example. But unity was all important when Zambia's President Kaunda, Mozambique's Machel and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe flew to Malawi in September 1986 to deliver an ultimatum to President Kamuzu Banda: either Malawi stopped supporting the MNR or its neighbours would close their borders with that country.

Close links between the states have also helped make SADCC the least bureaucratic of economic organizations. 'Our survival does not depend so much on obligations enumerated in legal documents as on the recognition of the need to work together,' says SADCC's current Executive Secretary, Simba Makoni. Nor is there a central fund, with all the political and bureaucratic wrangles it brings. International donors simply pledge money for specific projects, contractors are signed up and the money is paid out without ever being handled by the SADCC states. The scope for corruption - as well as bureaucracy - is reduced to a minimum. SADCC's day-to-day running is simple too, with Botswana hosting a small executive secretariat and each member state having one technical unit with a particular responsibility - transport or trade, for example. This easy and practical set-up helps keep regimes as different as Angola and Malawi working together. Potential donors are impressed. In the words of Botswana's President Quett Masire, 'SADCC has captured the imagination, support and sympathy of most of the international community'.

SADCC has a remarkable past. But what about its future?

The region may have become less dependent on South Africa for transport and communication, but when it comes to trade and industry the dependency is as overwhelming as ever. Trade between SADCC countries stands at a mere four per cent of each member state's total amount of trade. The next important step for SADCC must therefore be investment and cooperation in production.

The great obstacle to such economic growth and development, however, continues to be South African aggression, which has cost the region hundreds of thousands of lives and material losses of around 30 billion dollars - that is 10 times the total amount of foreign aid the region received in the past decade.

But there are other obstacles: terms of trade that favour the rich world, for example, and, of course foreign debt. Only a strengthened SADCC can tackle such global inequalities. There are two lines of thought within SADCC on how it should achieve that strength. One is more nationalist, the other regionalist.

The first says that there should be a long period of individual nation building before anything more 'adventurous' like regional federation is attempted. The second favours faster integration, with regional co-operation being a major component of how each nation plans its domestic policies.

For such a federation to work it should include an apartheid-free South Africa - the only fully industrialized country in the region. Perhaps a supra-national political grouping - including a majority-ruled South Africa - would lose its imperialist overtones and gain a completely new dimension.

In the meantime, SADCC leaders have a track record of taking things step by step and avoiding rush decisions. Probably, their greatest wish right now is to welcome an independent Namibia as the tenth SADCC state in 1989 - and take it from there.

Maputo-based Journalist Carlos Cardoso specializes in Southern African regional affairs.

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