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After Zimbabwe botched elections, SADC hints at a new way of doing politics

The leadership of SADC may rightfully realise that the old modus operandi may not be sustainable
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In Southern Africa, there has always been a swinging pendulum moving from bold proclamations of spearheading democracy to actions that render those proclamations meaningless. This oscillation had for long tainted the Southern African Development Community’s perceived usefulness. As a result, SADC acquired the unbecoming moniker ‘the toothless dog’. However, its recent response to the Zimbabwean elections hints at a new way of doing politics.

The past endorsement and acquiescence

The ideological and historical ties between the former liberation movements in this region have led to a history of fraternal solidarity within SADC in the post-independence era. What is known as a ‘brotherhood’ between the ruling parties in Angola (MPLA), Mozambique (Frelimo), Namibia (SWAPO), Zimbabwe (ZANU PF) and in South Africa (ANC) ensured that these parties sheltered one another from direct external interference in national politics and from criticism. Their insistence on maintaining the principles of ‘sovereign equality’ and ‘non-interference in internal affairs’ meant that member states were reluctant to comment publicly on the shortcomings of others. As a result, extensive commentary within the organization on the domestic affairs of any member country has largely been a no-go area since SADC’s inception in 1992.

Alongside fraternal solidarity, SADC has long struggled with its divergent values as a community. For many observers, it is a community some of whose member nations are democratically oriented, while others have authoritarian inclinations. These contradictory tendencies have long impacted the organisation’s modus operandi.

For a few days following the elections in Zimbabwe, a pattern of behaviour reminiscent of the fraternal SADC brotherhood was in evidence. In the face of the largely-criticised elections by SADC and also local, continental and international observer bodies, the executive response from regional leaders did not mirror the concerns about the absence of good electoral governance in Zimbabwe. Several leaders, including the presidents of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Tanzania, and the African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General, Cde Fikile Mbalula, were among the first to congratulate Mnanagagwa upon his victory. Their messages commended Zimbabwe’s commitment to ‘SADCs democratic ideals’ and to holding ‘harmonised elections’

What followed was criticism from political analysts, activists, and citizens at large, of those leaders’ eagerness to accept the outcome of the elections, enthusiastically or acquiescently. It seemed as though SADC would not voice any criticism of the election and how it had been conducted.

A new era of politics?

However, with time, and despite their congratulatory messages, only three of 16 heads of state attended Mnangagwa’s inauguration ceremony. While South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi, and DRC’s Félix Tshisekedi attended, other countries sent ambassadors and ministers. Several key figures did not attend the inauguration or move an inch to endorse the elections, most notably, Zambia’s current president, Hakainde Hichilema. Hichilema is arguably one of the most influential figures in SADC, as he currently chairs the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation. Alongside Hichilema, the other two presidents of the SADC Troika were also not in attendance.  However, the absence of regional leaders from the inauguration is not the only hint of a change in attitude regarding politics in the region.

The condemnatory report by the SADC Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM shocked many and rightfully so. In the past, SADC has observed a number of contested elections with little to no condemnation from the regional body. The most controversial results endorsed by SADC have included Tanzania’s and Comoros’ 2020 elections and, prior to that, Malawi’s 2019 elections whose outcome was subsequently annulled by a court. Not only did the SADC Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM) release a critical report of Zimbabwe’s elections, but in the days following its release, the SADC secretariat condemned the personal attacks and aggressive statements directed at the head of the mission, Dr Nevers Mumba.

The imperatives of restoring SADC legitimacy

Although sending formal congratulations and not attending an inauguration is an ambiguous path to deconstructing established norms of fraternal politicking, its overall message cannot be understated. Two factors have likely motivated the emerging shift in SADC’s political orientation.

The first is the chairmanship of the SADC political organs by leaders who do not emerge from liberation parties. Hakainde Hichilema represents the United Party for National Development, which languished as the official opposition for four terms before it ascended to power in 2021. Hichilema is a fervent proponent of the consolidation of liberal democracy within SADC. The presidents of Comoros, Madagascar, and Mauritius are also leaders of former opposition parties. Further, the president of Comoros, Azali Assoumani, holds a seat of influence as the current chairperson of the African Union. This recalibration of Southern Africa’s political leadership away from liberation parties seems to have played a role in the decline of the practices of fraternal solidarity.

Additionally, the reputational risk of further indulging in fraternal solidarity may also have been a complementing factor for this shift in politicking. As hinted at earlier, SADC has long lost its prestige, particularly in the realm of collective security, peacemaking and conflict resolution, with many commentators likening it to a toothless dog because of its inability to organise around peace and security.

Furthermore, the reluctance to act decisively on security matters whose origins are purely domestic prevents the body from functioning efficiently in accordance with its principles and objectives. Indeed, a poor reputation rooted in inaction has inflicted severe harm on the body’s legitimacy. In turn, a weakened legitimacy reduces member states’ impulse to comply with SADC’s principles and objectives, making an already ineffective body even less effective. The leadership of SADC may rightfully realise that the old modus operandi may not be sustainable, especially as they move to become further integrated through new development projects like the Green Hydrogen project and the Tripartite Transport & Transit Facilitation Programme.

With ambitious plans for growth, integration and security by 2030, a shift in approach can go a long way towards transforming SADC from a toothless dog into an agency with potent capacity. It is hardly farfetched to argue that this can happen only if regional leaders embrace true accountability – not ambiguity or silent condemnation.

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