The recent decision by South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa to make his first official tour of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region so soon after taking office hopefully reflects a desire to prioritise it in the country's foreign policy.
South Africa chairs SADC this year and Ramaphosa visited three countries – Angola, Botswana and Namibia – which currently play important roles in the regional body.
Angola chairs the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation; Botswana is home to the SADC Secretariat; and Namibia is set to chair SADC in 2019. Namibia also hosts the SADC Parliamentary Forum.
SADC was established in 1992 and South Africa became a member in 1994. Its objective is to achieve economic development, growth, peace and security through regional integration, but assessments of its ability to achieve this have tended to be very negative, with the region missing several self-imposed deadlines in its integration agenda.
Whereas the ambition was to have created a customs union by 2010, SADC has only implemented a free trade area. It is now hoping to achieve the ambition of deeper integration by focusing on regional industrialisation and the creation of regional value chains. Intra-SADC trade accounts for only 15 to 17 percent of the member states' trade portfolio, with most countries still predominantly trading according to colonial ties and with China.
Politically, integration remains weak, with electoral crises affecting a number of member states, including Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ceding sovereignty to the regional body has remained the main stumbling block preventing deeper integration.
However, winds of change have been blowing in the region. In recent years peaceful and democratic change took place in Angola and early elections were held in Lesotho, allowing for a more stable government.
Bigger change, of course, happened in Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe stepped down after 37 years in power following what many regarded as a coup, albeit a "soft" one. South Africa soon followed suit with the resignation of Jacob Zuma to make way for Ramaphosa, the newly-elected president of the ruling party, to take over the reins and to proclaim a "new dawn" for the country.
Reversing progress made
During the Mandela presidency it was often said that South Africa could ill afford to become "an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty." However, in the period since, South Africa has not projected strong leadership in the region and many of SADC's aspirations have suffered as a result. These aspirations are not only in the economic field but also in the setting of common political values and norms through the institutions that underpin the integration effort.
One of the biggest travesties of justice occurred when former presidents Mugabe and Zuma orchestrated the collapse of the SADC Tribunal. This followed rulings that the Zimbabwe government's seizure of a white farmer's land without compensation was racist and unlawful, and violated the SADC Treaty because he had been denied the right of recourse in the Zimbabwean courts.
The Pretoria High Court recently found that Zuma acted "unlawfully, irrationally and unconstitutionally when he supported and took part in a resolution suspending the operations of the SADC Tribunal".
Tipping point for the regional mining industry
The SADC Summit which will take place in August this year is themed "Partnering with the Private Sector in Developing Industry and Regional Value Chains". The action plan for an SADC Industrialisation Strategy was adopted in Swaziland in 2017 and is focussing on promoting agro-processing in the region alongside the development of the pharmaceutical industry.
Mineral beneficiation remains an important ambition on SADC's agenda and the SADC Protocol on Mining states that the industry is one of strategic importance in Southern Africa. Roughly half of the world's vanadium, platinum and diamonds originates in the region, along with 36 percent of its gold and 20 percent of its cobalt.
Ramaphosa's private sector and mining background could bring important direction to the future of mining in SADC. He could focus strongly on the sustainability of the mining sector throughout the region and bring a future-oriented approach by anticipating future trends and potential new areas of strength for the region. Think here what the shift towards the electric car in Europe may mean in terms of their mineral needs, or how increased mechanised mining could affect the labour market if the industry started to retrain its workers to become miners of the future.
While South Africa will chair SADC only for 2018, it can contribute towards building a long-term vision and action plan for the regional mining industry. For this to happen, it will have to work closely with like-minded SADC member states in order to convince the group of the urgency of planning for the future.
For these reasons closer relationships with Angola, Zambia and Namibia are important. In Namibia, large cobalt deposits have recently been found, which could see the country playing a critical global role in supplying the renewable energy battery sector. Solving the political problems in the DRC becomes even more critical in the context of mining.
Strengthening SADC institutions
On the governance side, SADC remains an organisation that is in effect run by heads of state. The institutions created by the SADC Treaty remain weak and as a result the region struggles with building regional protocols into domestic systems and in getting member states to adhere to their contents.
The SADC Secretariat in particular has remained a weak institution. Despite restructuring on a regular basis, the problem at the core of its ineffectiveness is that it has no enforcement powers and acts only as a coordinating entity.
SADC has to rethink drastically how it can ensure that regional decisions and policies are domesticated into national laws. As it stands, the SADC Parliamentary Forum plays no role in promoting domestication and is restricted to sending electoral observer missions and working on capacity developing programmes for national parliaments. President Ramaphosa could voice his support for a SADC Parliament to replace the current, largely ineffectual, Parliamentary Forum. Apart from Namibia advocating for this change, regional support for it has been weak.
Unless SADC member states become serious about domesticating SADC protocols and policies, the integration agenda will remain a distant, unrealisable ambition. Giving a SADC Parliament legislative teeth could convince national governments of the importance that regional integration deserves.
Talitha Bertelsmann-Scott (@TalithaBerScott) heads the Regional Observatory at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). She writes in her personal capacity.