South Africa, please worry about Southern Africa now

2012-06-27 17:53

Rumours about changing dynamics in Southern Africa, changes that of necessity affect South Africa’s privileged positions are becoming real stories. The quest for greater equity and even development in the region is a noble one. South Africa has to adjust to this and simultaneously take advantage of it, for change is inevitable. It is reported that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is contemplating a development bank for southern Africa.

It immediately comes to mind that there is a Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) based in Midrand, South Africa. You wonder if this is not unnecessary duplication when there is a DBSA. On close examination, the seemingly ill-considered move makes sense. The ‘southern Africa” the name of the South African owned bank is more a promise than a reality. It is yet to be regional in outlook and impact. It is not regional in its ownership and in its strategic leadership.Of course, it does significant work in the region and beyond, but that does not make it a bank for the region. It remains a South African bank. It seen as an extension of South African hegemony, what Patric Bond called once called sub-imperialism.

This matter arises where regional organisations have assumed greater significance in the conduct of international relations. They promote collective positions by otherwise individually weak countries in complex international diplomacy where power hierarchy in which the west is at the top determines advantage and outcomes. They are also becoming key in counter-balancing the neo-colonial nature of the global order and globalisation. In this context have emerged new development banks in Latin America, Asia and now in Africa.

Southern Africa always embraced developmentalism. SADC sees itself as a development community and its agenda is primarily developmental. It has a comprehensive strategic developmental plan, and it makes prominent in its annual agenda questions of poverty and inequality. After all, it is dominated by former liberation movements, which tend to be developmentalist in their economic ideologies.

SADC has its origin in regional solidarity to counter-balance aggressive hegemony of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. After 1994, South Africa transformed itself into a key champion for SADC development and integration. But concerned about being seen as a regional hegemon, South Africa deliberately supported the leadership of others.

However, some in the region perceived this as just another sign of South Africa’s myth of exceptionalism. They thought it was becoming a lone ranger that is able to negotiate deals with the EU, the US, China and international finance institutions to its favour, but sometimes to the detriment of regional developmental interests.

After 18 years, there are many things that the new South Africa is yet to do. One is to convert the Development Bank of Southern Africa into a significantly Southern African bank. Under apartheid, the bank supported Bantustans and friendly states elsewhere. After apartheid, the DBSA has ventured into the whole of the continent, but mostly on the basis of commercial reasoning rather than as a typical development bank. The bulk of its developmental investment continues to be directed at South Africa provinces and municipalities’ infrastructure needs. Of course, the reasoning is that the bank is capitalised through SA taxpapers’ monies.

Neither the last two political principals of the bank, Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordan, nor its politically wise long-time chairman, Jay Naidoo, seem to have realised the fact that with time the region will stop hoping that South Africa will increase the regionness of the bank. It was a matter time before the region gave up and announced that it was establishing what the Deputy Executive secretary of SADC called “our own bank,” suggesting the DBSA was not the region’s bank. He went on to say, “There is resentment towards the DBSA in certain quarters because it is in South Africa and South Africa is the only shareholder. SADC has no say in what the DBSA does...” This resentment cannot be taken lightly as it will impact other areas of South Africa’s role in southern Africa.

South Africa can still regain its footing on regional developments by offering to buy some shareholding in this new bank. It can also encourage the DBSA to significantly expand the participation of regional stakeholders including SADC officials in its board or be resigned to becoming a quasi-commercial bank in which case it will loose quite some political clout in this difficult investment environment.

We need a second transition in our strategic approach to SADC and Africa to avoid losing more than we have lost already. This must begin by accepting that we need some radical change in our understanding of the region and the interpretation of its power dynamics in a changing world.

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