Too much has been made of President Robert Mugabe’s recent elevation as Chairman of SADEC. In Botswana our state owned media, gleefully assisted by sections of the gullible private media has also been singing lyrical about the fact that President Ian Khama is now SADC Deputy Chair. The unstated but underlying assumption being bandied about is that both Mugabe and Khama will somehow use their new positions to steer SADC into better territories. Our view is that such optimism is highly misplaced. First because it fails to take into consideration the fact that SADC Chairmanship and with it its Deputy are highly ceremonial positions that are held on rotational basis. Every country that is a member will as it has always happened have a turn to hold the ceremonial baton.
It really does not count for much beyond receiving regular calls from the Executive secretary. The second and perhaps more important is that such optimism decimally discounts SADC’s 35 year old history of failure, inertia and dysfunctionality. The Chairman of SADC does not have any power over anything. The power is retained by individual states and it is often proportional to the country’s economic standing inside the block but also within the region and indeed the world. In short South Africa’s president would always retain the final say on how SADC is run because of that country’s economic superiority. If there is to be any committee inside SADC that wields real power of significance then it has to be that of politics and Security which incidentally is currently chaired by South African President, Jacob Zuma. This then seals the question, if ever there was any, of just where real power resides inside SADC. In all intents and purposes, SADC is a failed organization.
None of its leaders can face his or her people and tell them just what the organisation has done for the. Integration – both economic and political remains as far away as it was when the organization was first conceived in another incarnation in April 1980. And there is a reason for it. Take Botswana for example with it’s over reliance on customs duties. How can Botswana fully support economic integration and the removal of tariffs when doping so would usher the country’s economic death? That is even truer for Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia. And to a lesser extent South Africa.
Politically, how can it make sense to integrate a country that is as stable as South Africa with say the Democratic Republic of the Congo where there still remains some parts of the country that are a no go zone for the Head of State who in some worse periods behaves more like a Mayor for Kingshasa where he is forever confined, afraid to venture out of the capital for fear of his security and safety? And that is not all. How for example can it be practical to treat all these economically disparate entities as one when among them there are portions that could easily be mistaken for Europe while others are some of the poorest parts of the world? And this is before we even talk of the many challenges poses by a high number of languages that make up the sub-continent, made worse by events of history but also the ever sprawling bouts of xenophobia that flare up from time to time; tragically but not surprisingly enjoying the blessing of some of our political leaders. A lofty if defective attempt at integration, SADC has been a creation of men and women (more men) with grandiose but unrealistic ambitions.
If there are any people who have benefited from SADC it has to be the bureaucrats at the secretariat in Gaborone who are visibly among the most paid of all the diplomatic circles around. Fifteen years ago SADC Secretariat expended enormous resources and even set a deadline on integration, which the then Executive Secretary gleefully and vaguely called the linchpin of the organization.
As we speak all the dreams at integration together with multi-dollar research reports that spawned it are gathering dust somewhere inside the SADC multi storey office in Gaborone’s up market CBD. In a year’s time, Mugabe will step down as Khama becomes the immediate successor. It would count for nothing. The only thing that Botswana would point for it would be the expenditure bill of hosting the fifteen Heads of States for the latest round of the annual talkshow that would happen around that time.