Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

What's Been Built in Twenty Years? SADC and Southern Africa's Political and Regional Security Culture

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

What's Been Built in Twenty Years? SADC and Southern Africa's Political and Regional Security Culture

Article excerpt


The sense of region in Southern Africa is based on nationalism and its struggles for national liberation. Unusually, the norms of smaller states initially shaped the region's scope and culture of interaction. First and foremost, cooperation happened in the area of security, an initial focus being to uphold the independence and sovereignty of the state in the face of challenges from apartheid South Africa. As such, rather atypically, intergovernmental security cooperation preceded broad based economic cooperation. This has meant that security and development have remained largely de-linked and this has helped discourage implementing a society or human rights centred approach to security. Cooperation has been made more difficult by disparate political systems with divergent values, cultures, agendas and sensibilities. As such, regionalism reinforces nationalism to the exclusion of development or wider notions of political and social security. The region amounts to a security regime with only a patchy record in advancing security. Therefore, in the face of developmental challenges and unless a degree of strategic coherence along political and policy fronts is reached, after 20 years of SADC the endeavour to institutionalise security in conventional state-centred ways amounts to a scenario of diminishing returns.


Regions are increasingly held to be more political constructions by social actors than inherent expressions of geography or economics. Political, security and social factors are seen to predominate in bringing about economic and other forms of regional organisation. While inter-governmental instruments and the organisation behind regional structures may look similar, values, emphasis and intent can differ greatly. The changing face of Southern African regionalism can be seen as the product of different social forces over time, where goals and values rather than a given material world structure and legal obligation explain outcomes. (2))

Whereas convention tells us that the pressure for regional arrangements comes from the bottom, often given by market actors (Mattli, 1999: 90), regional organisation in Southern Africa has mostly come from the top down, driven by governments. Amidst the absence of any critical mass of economic interdependence or peace across the region, political intent informed by security considerations rather than market demand are the original drivers of regional organisation. Such political sources of regionalisation lie with the leadership of political elites.

Most Southern African member stares are small in size and population and have unevenly developed economies exporting largely to the world economy. This outward-orientedness is accompanied by internal structural imbalance, and South Africa's towering economy. Both features result in a lack of economic convergence and, in security terms, the region remains self-limiting. Southern Africa is neither a viable, integrated regional political economy not a security community (Nathan, 2012: 152), it is closer to a security regime (Omari and Macaringue, 2007: 59-60), if not a weak security complex (Hammerstad, 2005: 74).

Nonetheless, regional security organisation has laid the foundation for reproducing formal and informal norms intended to defend the sovereignty of independent Africa, something that has decisively shaped the recent evolution of the region's identity and security policy. This happened without any direct hegemonic doing.

The United States of America (US), given its associations with apartheid South Africa and strategic disinterest in the region after 1990 and before 9/11, was opposed to, ambiguous toward or disinterested in African regional organisation. South Africa, despite its predominant economy (whose gross domestic product [GDP] in 2007 amounted to two-thirds of the combined GDP of Southern African Development Community [SADC] economies), (3)) was unable to break out of its political containment until after 1994. …

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