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Towards a Southern African Federation

16 July 2014, 19:45

In this article I will attempt to make the argument for the formation of a Southern African Federation that would have as its members Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho and (extenuating circumstances permitted) Zimbabwe and Swaziland. I will attempt to provide an overview of why this formation could work and in what ways it might possibly function. The analysis of the technical plausibility of the federation of these different states would require an input from a wide range of professional areas.

For instance, the economics of such a move would be huge and analysing all the ways in which federation would affect the economic vitality of the constituent countries would require a far greater level of technical analysis then I am capable. In writing this paper I am cognizant of the bewildering amount of technical analysis that would be necessary for a proper assessment of risks and benefits of federation.

As such this paper amounts to a thought experiment and an over view of the main factors anyone thinking about Federation would have to deal with.  

A federal system is defined as a political entity characterized by a union of partially self-governing states or regions under a central (federal) government. Some examples include the United States, Brazil, India and Russia. The federation we create will be original in character. This system would allow the constituent states broad powers in most local matters. The central federal authority would manage the collective defence, economic policy and integration and work to create unity and generate tangible benefits from the harmonised efforts of the constituent states.

Some Statistics

Population (millions)

Nominal GDP and ranking($ billions)

Nominal GDP Per Capita ($ Thousands)

GDP PPP( $ billions)

GDP PPP per Capita $ thousands)

Area (km2)

Human Development Index ranking (HDI)

























South Africa

















13 061 239







73 437 614 (19th)

417.728 (17th)


3,067,858 (8th)

Size Matters

I am convinced that the creation of this federation would add to the collective prosperity of all our countries people. Size matters. Barring deep internal social divisions larger countries tend to have larger economies. Large countries in terms of land area often will have large populations which mean a large amount of workers and a large market assuming deep social problems and geography do not limit these positive benefits. Pakistan is a large country with a particularly large population and yet its economy is smaller than South Africa’s. But Pakistan has deep internal divisions with large tribal areas that follow a fundamentalist version of Islam. These areas are also mountainous which means managing them is almost impossible. The social tension that arises from the battle between the secular and fundamentalist tendencies coupled with the challenge of creating economic development in a largely poor country mean that the country can’t tap into a resource that should make their country’s economy wealthier than that of South Africa.

The United States on the other hand had a different trajectory.  A number of reasons can be given for the incredible development of the American economy but its development cannot be separated from the benefits of geography and demography. It is the third largest country by land area and population. In a country that size geography and climate vary but it is largely situated in a temperate zone that allows productive farming land unlike much of Canada which is barely habitable because of its proximity to the artic. Unlike the DRC where there is impenetrable forest that separates the country or Russia which is impossibly large stretching into Siberia, land that cannot sustain large populations, the US geography allows travel infrastructure to be built across its expanse with relatively lower cost. The US, because of its institutions and its history was able to tap into its human resources allowing it to maximise the benefits of its natural endowments. It also has room to grow as its population density is disarmingly low in a way that Pakistan is not. Our federation would have similar benefits, our countries climates are relatively temperate and no significant geographical barriers exist to integration.

Smaller countries are dominated. Countries that are too small have economies that are small. Internal markets are too small to generate industries and heavy importation is necessary. They also need bigger countries to export to maintain their industries. This means they rely on bigger countries for their economic survival and prosperity. This is a dangerous position to be in. Smaller countries will be intimidated and violated. Their sovereignty is an illusion as economic dependence and weakness requires them to look to other countries for their defence or to enter into collective defence agreements. Smaller countries can of course be prosperous like Luxemburg, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries for example. But that prosperity is dependent on conditions external to them in a way that is not the case with a Germany or a France. In World War 2 Germany invaded many smaller countries, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark and so on in pursuit of bigger objectives.

The sovereignty of smaller countries is a mirage. Lesotho cannot be really being sovereign. They may have limited control over internal political decisions but that is the case only in so far as South African interests are not affected. The same goes for Swaziland and, to a lesser extent, Botswana and Namibia. It’s not because South Africans are somehow arrogant or look down on Lesotho or other smaller countries. This is how countries operate. They pursue their self-interest. If they can dominate another country they will. Most of Lesotho’s young men have to come to South Africa to find work. Lesotho’s internal market is too small to compete with South Africa goods so they rely on South Africa for imports. Much of the government revenue comes from a generous customs treaty with South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland which is tilted in favour of the smaller countries. The net effect is that South Africa subsidies’ the government budget of these countries. Size matters and countries like Lesotho and Swaziland are too small to really compete.

An African Great Power

The creation of a federation for these countries would create a bigger country (8th in the world in land area and 19th in the world in terms of population) with a still greater room to grow. According to a UN demographics report by 2050  the population of Nigeria will be 259 million, Democratic Republic of Congo 189 million, Ethiopia 185 million, Egypt 125 million, Uganda 93 million, Tanzania 85 million, Kenya 85 million. South Africa is projected to remain at the 50 million mark. Despite the current dysfunction that plagues many African states we cannot rely on the prospect that these countries will be unable to tap into their expansive human capital indefinitely. When these countries get their act together they will bound  ahead of South Africa and its neighbours making this region of the world a quiet and uncompetitive backwater. Nigeria has already leapt ahead South Africa in terms of the size of its economy. The creation of the proposed Federation would not catapult us into the same demographic league as the countries mentioned above, but it would create a country with a larger population, large in geographical size, possessing an enormous amount of resources. There would be plenty of space for our populations to grow, meaning the ability to absorb immigrants in order to bolster the size of our workforce.

These countries have important cultural and historic ties that would make the formation of a singular national identity plausible. South Africa has a larger Sotho, Tswana and Swati speaking population than Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland respectively. South Africa and Zimbabwe also share a sizeable Ndebele population. These countries also have a similar colonial history. South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe were colonised by the British while South Africa administered Namibia after World War 1. As a result of this shared history South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia formed the South African Customs Union. The economies of these countries are strongly linked and reliant on South Africa for export and imports. Botswana, Zimbabwe and Lesotho rely on South African infrastructure to get their goods to world markets. These countries are strongly linked but their development is uneven.

In the beginning, Botswana, Namibia and South African and Lesotho must start the creation of the Federation. Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho are small enough that entering into a larger political union will have economic benefits while South Africa could afford the slight economic burden that might be placed on it. These countries are relatively stable, and in the case of Botswana, relatively prosperous and developed. This union, as a starting point would easily work. Swaziland should also join but this will be reliant on the willingness of the political elite, particularly King Mswati II to accept limitations on state financial support and the introduction of democratic political reform. Hopefully an arrangement could be made that would satisfy all citizens in Swaziland. Definitely kings in Swaziland and Lesotho could expect financial support akin to the support that South Africa gives its kings and chiefs like King Zwelithini and Dalindyebo of the AmaZulu and the AmaThembu respectively. The federal nature of the state would also ensure an acceptance of varied political structures and local independence, particularly over the management of state budgets. This would allow variable treatment of not only royal families but would protect the beliefs and traditions of once independent states.

Zimbabwe would hopefully be next. Zimbabwe has the largest population of the proposed federation after South Africa. It also has political elite that guards Zimbabwe’s independence jealousy. They also might reject the proposed union. Hopefully in the long run leaders in Zimbabwe, and leaders in the other countries for that matter, would see the benefits of this union. The Federation, form the very beginning, would need to be constructed in such a way that more countries can join. Swaziland and Zimbabwe at first. Then later, possibly Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. No country should ever be forced to join. Joining the Federation will be entirely voluntary. The selling point of the Federation is that it will be in the interests of prospective countries to join. Voluntary associations have a far greater likelihood of surviving then involuntary ones.

Conclusion: Start the Discussion

Discussion needs to begin about the creation of a Southern African Federation involving Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. This paper is meant only to be a starting point. A great deal of detail will need to be analysed and debated but irrespective of the challenges that would arise, at a systems level, the creation of this Federation is desirable. The mammoth task of leaders of the Federation will be to work to create a national identity that all citizens can subscribe to. This should be as inspiring process. Unlike the countries created in the wake of colonialism this would be a country we choose for ourselves, with peoples we choose to associate with. We will do so, with a unified vision, similar values and high aspirations. We want to live in a country that is safe and secure, prosperous and free, where all are given the opportunity to realise their ambitions and talents no matter the circumstances of their birth.

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