The Southern African Development Community (SADC) may not seem such an exclusive club to many of its own citizens. After all, a few of its members - Swaziland and Zimbabwe spring to mind - systematically violate the club's ostensible rules, regarding respect for democracy, the rule of law and governance especially, without evident fear of expulsion.
But the SADC club is nonetheless turning up its nose at two other countries that are trying to join.
Burundi and Comoros have both been banging on the door of the club for many months. But SADC, at least for now, is not opening it.
Last August, a SADC ministerial committee decided at a meeting in Maputo to send a SADC secretariat delegation to Burundi to assess its eligibility to join. The secretariat had already done a similar due diligence investigation of Comoros's application.
The application of Comoros appeared to have better prospectsIn February this year, the ministerial committee met again to discuss the secretariat's reports on both countries. It referred their applications for memberships to a special sub-committee of SADC foreign ministers, according to officials.
They made secret recommendations. South African President Jacob Zuma announced last week that the applications for membership from Burundi and Comoros would be discussed at the SADC summit in Swaziland last weekend.
But this didn't happen. The applications were referred to a broader meeting of SADC ministers, probably to take place in June.
Official sources said the recommendation of the foreign ministers' sub-committee was that neither country should be admitted as a member of SADC, at least not yet.
'You wouldn't expect SADC to accept a candidate with issues like that,' one official said, about Burundi.
Another said the SADC consensus was that Burundi needed 'to put its house in order' before being admitted. In effect, this demands that Burundi show good faith by engaging in political negotiations, led by the East African Community (EAC), with all genuine interlocutors - including the broad coalition of opposition parties, CNARED (The National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Agreement and Rules of Law), to resolve the country's political and security crisis, which it has so far refused to do.
The application of Comoros appeared to have better prospects and some media reports last year suggested it would succeed.
But officials said this week that although Comoros 'technically meets the criteria,' there was still no consensus among SADC members on its applications. Several countries were concerned at the country's proclivity for political violence and coups (about 20 to date, successful and unsuccessful).
Those criteria for membership are mainly adherence to democracy, economic development, inclusivity, good governance and the rule of law, SADC's 15 current member states are telling the two aspirant members (some with their fingers crossed behind their backs, presumably).
Why either Burundi or Comoros want to join SADC is not entirely clear, though it would not be entirely illogical for either to do so, at least geographically speaking.
Does Nkurunziza hope to tap into the anti-Rwanda sentiment that runs in SADC?Burundi neighbours Tanzania, a member of SADC and co-member of Burundi's proximate international organisation, the EAC. Comoros lies in the Indian Ocean, between Seychelles, Madagascar and Mozambique - all SADC members - and already shares with the other three island states membership of the Indian Ocean Commission, their proximate international organisation.
Apart from the automatic increment of respectability that joining wider international organisations would normally bring to both countries, there is also a hint of 'forum-shopping' in Burundi's quest to joint SADC, regional commentary has suggested.
The political negotiations supervised by the EAC to end the Burundi political and security crisis have stalled, amid growing regional disenchantment with Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's intransigence. The crisis has widened the rift between him and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whom he has accused of stoking the armed rebellion against him.
Does Nkurunziza perhaps hope, therefore, to tap into the anti-Rwanda sentiment that runs in SADC, and which has been engendered by the rivalry between Kigali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a SADC member state?
Stephanie Wolters, Head of the Peace and Security Research Programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, points out that Angola, another SADC member, is one of Burundi's closest behind-the-scenes allies.
She notes that Angola has already helped Burundi through the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) of which both are members. 'Before Angola took over the ICGLR two years ago, it was seen as a vehicle for Rwandan and Uganda interests. But Angola's leadership and its pairing of ICGLR-SADC summits has changed that for now.'
If Burundi is hoping to use SADC in the same way, that strategy does not seem to be succeeding, at least for now.
SADC itself appears to be following a different strategy for encouraging regional change, than its approach in the past. In 1997, it controversially admitted the DRC, just months after the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko and while the country was still embroiled in the conflict that was to suck in several nearby states.
SADC's strategy then was ostensibly to bring a troubled neighbour into the fold and to collectively try to help it resolve its problems from within. Although, Wolters points out, the massive potential market offered by DRC, and its significant natural resources - including the Inga hydro-electric projects, 'were not negligible elements in SADC's consideration.'
A senior South African official denies any contradiction, noting that it was Pretoria that drove SADC's acceptance of DRC - and that was because of South Africa's special interest in stabilising the country.
Twenty years later, SADC has adopted instead - and apparently for the first time - what looks like a European Union-style strategy, setting conditions for membership which it hopes will incentivise aspirants to democratise and stabilise. This is what the EU did, successfully, with then-undemocratic countries such as Portugal, Spain and some Eastern European states after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But is this really what SADC is now doing with Burundi in particular? Or does it simply not want to be burdened with the responsibility and the potential damage to its reputation of bringing on board such a delinquent neighbour?
For whatever one might think of the wisdom of admitting DRC, it did commit SADC and especially South Africa, to try to rehabilitate the chronically turbulent country.
Though the file is far from closed - and indeed DRC was a major issue at the recent summit - South Africa and SADC claim some success, citing the relative stability of the country.
SADC would also point to the intervention of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola in 1998 to save the Laurent Kabila regime from a Rwanda-led military intervention; and also the Force Intervention Brigade, comprising troops from three SADC countries, and which is still fighting armed rebel groups in eastern DRC.
Another factor that might explain the different SADC approaches to DRC then and Burundi now is that in 2004, SADC leaders - probably as a result of the indigestion caused by admitting DRC - placed a moratorium on new membership, though not completely closing the door on new members in unusual circumstances. The aim was to consolidate the organisation. The exceptions were that after Seychelles pulled out, SADC admitted Madagascar to take its place, as it were, and then when Seychelles decided to return, SADC accepted it as a previous member.
If SADC is seriously considering admitting Burundi and Comoros, it seems rather fanciful to hope, though, that setting them democracy, stability and rule-of-law conditions for membership will really cure their chronic bad habits, as aspirant EU members changed theirs.
For one thing, there is a large credibility deficit in SADC's strategy because of the yawning gap between SADC's ostensible values and the actual practices of some of its members.
And the EU has a whole lot more than SADC to offer new members; such as free access to the world's biggest market for their goods, services - and perhaps most importantly, workers - as well as generous development funds.
If SADC really hopes to get grudging democrats such as Burundi to plod in the direction of democracy and good governance, it needs to provide a better example and to tie a much bigger carrot to the end of the string.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant