Sunit Bagree (ACTSA)
Twenty five years ago today, South Africa concluded its first ever democratic elections. This historic event, celebrated every year on April 27th as Freedom Day, marked the formal end of apartheid. The whole Southern African region, i.e. the 16 states that now make up the Southern African Development Community (SADC), benefited from apartheid’s demise. This is because South Africa’s apartheid regime, which was often supported by the UK and US governments, destabilised and even attacked several countries in the region.
Two key themes emerge from an examination of contemporary Southern Africa. First, governments in the region are performing poorly on human rights, poverty reduction and equality. Second, powerful international actors are doing too little to assist the region – and in many instances are actively harming progress.
In many Southern African countries, critical civil society groups regularly face constraints on their civil liberties, especially those that relate to the freedoms of association and assembly. Laws and justice systems are misused to characterise human rights defenders as criminals who pose threats to national security. At times activists are physically harmed. Opposition politicians in many of the region’s countries also face harassment, intimidation and violence.
Furthermore, Southern Africa is not effectively reducing poverty. A recent analysis of 12 countries demonstrates that they are particularly struggling to improve health (Southern Africa is more affected by HIV/AIDS than any other region of the world), reduce income poverty and overcome hunger. The Sustainable Development Goals are rather unambitious on the last two issues, which makes the lack of success even more worrying.
Examining equality in the region hardly provides a more positive story. While women and girls have seen progress in some areas (e.g. more laws against gender-based violence and increased access to education), they remain largely marginalised in terms of status and control over resources. Moreover, although fewer SADC countries are criminalising same-sex activity between consenting adults, legal barriers to equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people remain in almost two-thirds of countries.
Meanwhile economic inequality in the region is extremely high. Seven of the 15 most unequal countries in the world in terms of income inequality are in Southern Africa. Incredibly, inequality (as measured by consumption) is actually greater today in South Africa than it was in 1994. Poverty is highest among black South Africans and remains concentrated in previously disadvantaged areas.
Overall, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) represents Southern Africa’s greatest tragedy. Up to 5.4 million Congolese people died as a result of armed conflict in the period 1998-2007 alone. While a small number of political elites benefit from the country’s mineral resources, ordinary citizens (especially women and girls) continue to suffer from violence, political instability and a humanitarian crisis.
Why are governments in Southern Africa performing so poorly? Liberation groups that gave several of these countries hope have been unable to transform from forces of resistance into effective governing parties that promote democracy and pro-poor growth. High levels of corruption are also a serious concern.
Clientelism, opaque public sector systems and weak anti-corruption bodies all allow nepotism and bribery to flourish in much of the region. The failure of SADC to promote justice, especially in the realm of human rights, is another important factor. In 2014, Southern African leaders stripped the SADC Tribunal – a crucial regional human rights mechanism – of its ability to receive complaints from individuals and organisations.
In addition, the people of Southern Africa have been badly let down by powerful international actors. The UK alone provides many examples that illustrates this.
In regard to civil and political rights, the UK government has been guilty of cosying up to Zimbabwe’s brutal leadership and ignoring the abusive rule of Swaziland’s absolute monarch. In regard to poverty reduction, British aid can and does helps the region (despite longstanding concerns about the quality of some aid). Of greater importance, however, is how London-based bankers can give illegal loans to Mozambique, and British-based or listed corporations can dodge taxes in Zambia and help to fuel corruption and violence in the DRC. The UK is also a key supporter of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) neoliberal approach (the IMF not having learned from its role in Malawi’s famine in 2002). Finally, the UK bears some responsibility for the climate crisis affecting Southern Africa, with extreme weather conditions such as last month’s Cyclone Idai only likely to become more frequent.
SADC and the wider international community should prioritise addressing the DRC’s major problems. Yet in doing so they must not ignore injustices in other Southern African countries. A revived SADC Tribunal can help to ensure accountability for human rights violations. This can complement purposeful action on human rights by other multilateral institutions, which powerful international actors should promote and support.
Civil society in Southern Africa continues to fight for alternatives to neoliberalism, economic inequality and environmental destruction. These battles are more likely to be won if powerful international actors prioritise and support efforts for debt, tax, trade, migrant and climate justice. Central to this agenda is making corporations face strict legal rather than voluntary obligations and stopping multilateral institutions from forcing economic policies onto the region.
Sunit Bagree is Senior Campaigns Officer at Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), the successor organisation to the Anti-Apartheid Movement.