What is the formula for building a strong regional bloc?
There is no easy answer, but Dr Stergomena Tax – the Executive Secretary of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) – believes the basic building blocks all have something to do with political will.
SADC is often touted as the most stable regional economic community in Africa, and Dr Tax says the secret of that success is in sustained solidarity among member states, strict adherence to democratic principles and deep economic collaboration.
The year 2020 marks SADC’s 40th anniversary, and the head of the bloc’s secretariat last week gave insights into what has made the organisation tick, while also highlighting some of the many challenges that still need to be tackled.
In an interview with American media, Dr Tax said when SADC was formed in 1980, one of its primary objectives was to secure the political independence of Namibia and South Africa, which were the last outposts of white rule in Southern Africa.
“The intention was to make sure that all the countries which had not achieved political liberation do so and through that co-operation Namibia became liberated in 1990,” she said. “The sustenance of solidarity which enabled Namibia to gain independence and also enabled the collapse of apartheid in South Africa in 1994 is one of the major achievements of SADC.”
Dr Tax said once political independence was achieved the maintenance of democracy, peace and security became paramount.
“Our secret is that first and foremost, we uphold democratic principles as enshrined in the (SADC) treaty, but people sometimes underestimate the importance of our SADC electoral observer missions, there is that perception out there that we just go there (to observe elections) as a formality, that is not true at all and this also has added value to the democratic and governance systems which you see in our region,” she said.
“Although one may not see it but for us we feel that maintaining peace and security in the region is a major milestone and we have managed to maintain political stability because of the solidarity we have. Our strength is on peace and security because we have put in place mechanisms of conflict management and resolution but also democracy.”
She cited a number of interventions made by SADC in regional matters, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo where regional forces are currently deployed as part of a United Nations peacekeeping effort.
“We work together with the DRC, there were a lot of challenges, electoral challenges before the last elections but we supported our sister country to have peaceful elections, yes the northern part of DRC is not yet stable but we are still there helping them.
“We intervened in Madagascar, we managed to bring the different parties together and then there was constitutional normalcy after quite some time. We also intervened in Lesotho, we are still there facilitating there have been a number of changes in administration, but all of them have been done peacefully,” she said.
As expected, no conversation on peace, security and democracy in SADC can go far before the issue of Zimbabwe is raised.
For the West, Zimbabwe is the poster boy for bad governance. For many Africans, Zimbabwe’s redistribution of land from 6,000 white farmers to more than 300,000 black families is one of the greatest assertions of independence in post-colonial Africa.
“I have heard a lot about Zimbabwe but the unfortunate part, now we have social media, is that people tend to listen to one party without listening to both parties analysing and saying OK indeed there is a challenge here in terms of democracy.
“Zimbabwe has held elections throughout, democratic elections and even the last change of administration was done democratically it was not that the former president was forced out, he stepped down so I do not understand when we say that there is no democracy in Zimbabwe. For us we feel that Zimbabwe’s elections, all the elections have been done democratically in line with the guiding legislation.”
On matters economic, Dr Tax spelt out the great strides SADC had made towards implementing meaningful integration.
A major highlight remains the establishment of the SADC Free Trade Area in 2008, which has resulted in intra-regional trade rising from 16,3 that year to 21,6 percent by 2016. The figure dipped to 19,3 percent in 2018.
The SADC FTA created an integrated market of 16 countries with a combined GDP of US$720 billion and a potential market of 340 million people. The bloc’s FTA feeds into the Tripartite Free Trade Area with Comesa and the East African Community, and then even further into the African Continental Free Trade Area.
“And now the orientation has been on industrialisation,” Dr Tax said. “Notwithstanding having a Free Trade Area, we realised that we need to enhance our competitiveness and productive capacities to utilise the free market which we have established.”
The full interview with SADC Executive Secretary Dr Stergomena Tax can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhmnlYsJn0M&feature=youtu.be