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Political Conflict and Development in SADC

Political Conflict and Development in SADC

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is one of the most politically and economically stable regional blocs on the African continent. However, economic growth and development in the region have been negatively affected by conflict and political instability. The region has had to grapple with the long term damaged caused by colonial policies that denied many people ownership and autonomous use of their land and contributed to ethnic and region tensions. For instance, the protracted conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – which has drawn in a number of members states since it began in the 1960s – has its origins in the colonial period. More recently, the region has faced political instability due disputed elections, which in certain instances have degenerated into political violence locally with broader regional implications. The conflicts and political instability in some countries in the region over the past decade have definitely had implications on SADC’s economic growth and development. Conflict and political instability have hindered regional investments by disrupting markets and regional value chains. As the economies in the region have become more integrated, the disruption of markers and regional value chains caused by conflict has negatively impacted the overall economic performance of the region.

The current political instability and conflict in Southern Africa can be traced back to the colonial era. Many colonial governments implemented policies which displaced a large number of people and limited their economic opportunities, which in turn contributed to the creation of resistance movement and in conflicts within the region. Many of the most unpopular policies were so-called conservation policies, wherein colonial administrators justified displacing people and interfering with local economic structures under the guise of preserving resources and modernising the African economy. For example, the colonial government in Tanganyika (modern day Tanzania) introduced soil conservation projects in the 1950s from where people were removed from the Shambaai mountain areas to become wage workers[1]. In Northern Rhodesia (modern day Zambia) people in the Mweru-Luapula region were restricted from fishing, even during the open season, in an attempt to conserve depleting fish stocks[2]. These policies were often poorly implemented and negatively impacted people’s lives[3]. Many of the colonial conservation projects were implemented through indirect rule by the local chiefs who lost popularity among the subjects[4]. The discontented citizens began to organise local resistance organisations, which were often integrated into larger liberation movements that that strived for decolonisation.

The liberation struggles for independence varied from country to country, with nations like Botswana experiencing relatively peaceful transitions, while independence movements and post-colonial governments in other nations faced harsher resistance. In some cases, such as South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), colonial governments imposed repressive measures to curb resistance and maintain the colonial regime. This resulted in a civil war in Zimbabwe from 1964-1979 and a civil struggle in South Africa from 1976-1994[5]. In other instances, the region’s colonisers left relatively peacefully, but rival political factions began fighting for control, causing prolonged civil wars. In Angola and Mozambique civil wars broke out after the Portuguese left the countries and communist parties – the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) in Angola and Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in Mozambique – were elected into power, but were met by strong resistance from counter-insurgent União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) and Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO)[6].

These conflicts had a massive impact on the region, as various factions across these nations formed alliances to support one another. In 1963 the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the first post-colonial regional organisation on the continent, was founded by countries who had recently gained independence and various liberation movements in order to foster African unity and promote growth and stability on the continent. The OAU sourced funding from the international community to support the MPLA and FRELIMO, as well as the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, and Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in Zimbabwe to support them in their various conflicts creating a network of alliances[7]. Because the ANC, MPLA, and FRELIMO were affiliated with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, the anti-communist South African apartheid government and the United States of America intervened in the conflicts in Mozambique and Angola by backing rebel movements such as UNITA and RENAMO[8]. As part of their efforts to thwart groups affiliated with the ANC and OAU the South African Defence Force (SADF) invaded several neighbouring countries, including Zimbabwe, Angola, and Mozambique, where they destroyed vital infrastructure to disrupt supply chains in the region[9]. The apartheid government also orchestrated the assassination of ANC exiles in Botswana and Lesotho that at times caused significant collateral damage[10].

Table 1: Summary of Post-Colonial Conflicts in SADC

Source: See Annex.

One of the motives behind the apartheid government’s interventions into conflicts in the region was to prevent other Southern African countries from establishing economies that were independent from South Africa’s[11]. For instance, the destruction of railways in some SADC countries disrupted trade and forced countries to use South African ports and routes for international trade[12]. Countries that had to transport their goods via South Africa had to pay millions of dollars in fees to the apartheid government, for example Zambia spent about USD 250.0 million for using South African transport as an alternative to Angola and Mozambique, while Malawi incurred USD 12.0 billion for using South Africa routes instead of the nearest ones[13]. Furthermore, countries that had to defend their own infrastructure from attack accrued an estimated USD 15.0 billion in costs. For example, Zimbabwe spent USD 3.5 billion for the military to guard communication networks in Mozambique from 1980-1988[14]. However, with the demise of apartheid rule and introduction of democracy in South Africa in 1994, incidence of South African military intrusion into other countries stopped. The communication networks between other SADC countries have not been rebuilt but trade relations between countries in the region have improved.

Nevertheless, the guerrilla warfare in Zimbabwe and the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique demonstrated typical political violence in the region[15]. The consequences of the civil war in Mozambique are still being felt today. Agricultural production declined due to large areas of arable land being turned into minefields, the destruction of infrastructure, and the loss of business by many entrepreneurs[16]. The economy of Mozambique plummeted after independence in 1975 and the GDP dropped by 8.0% by 1980[17]. The decline in the performance of Mozambique economy resulted in poverty and migration of people into the neighbouring states in search of employment opportunities[18]. After the end of the Cold War international support for RENAMO and UNITA ended, causing the former to end the conflict in Mozambique. However, UNITA had been able to secure control of large areas of resource rich land with the help of the SADF and were able to continue fighting until the death of leader Jonas Malheiro Savimbi in early 2002[19].

Across the continent rebel groups like UNITA have been able to trade their country’s natural resources to fuel conflict is the region. This has had a detrimental impact on many countries, especially the DRC, which is listed among the poorest in the world despite having abundant natural resources. A number of different rebel groups have taken over control natural resource rich areas in some parts of the DRC since the country gain independence in 1960[20]. These groups illegally trade these resources through multi-national corporations. However, it is rather difficult for some multi-national corporations to determine whether the mining contracts they are issued are being illegally issued by the rebel groups or legally obtained from the Congolese government[21]. The problem has been exacerbated by conflicts from the neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda and Uganda, bleeding over into the DRC. There have even been reports of neighbouring governments supporting certain rebel groups so that they can also profit from a share of the DRC natural resources[22]. The resource-based conflicts in DRC have caused deaths of an estimated 20 people in 1994 in Goma, and to this day there are rebel-controlled danger zones throughout the country. As a result, there have been a number of attempts to solve the conflict by the external bodies, such as the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement, but many of them were fruitless[23].

The struggle for access to land is another factor that can be linked to current political instability and conflict in the SADC region. The 1913 Natives Land Act in South Africa and the 1930 Land Apportionment Act in Zimbabwe began a process which forced African people from their land to make way for white commercial farmers[24]. In Zimbabwe, tension around land distribution caused the government to adopt the Fast Track Land Reform process in late 1990s which resulted in the seizure of large areas of white owned land and an increase of violence in the region[25]. In South Africa, there is a growing amount of tension surrounding the land issue, due to the slow rate of land reform. While no formal conflict has broken out yet, the government is conscious of the tensions surrounding the land issue and is carefully planning new policies and amendments to the constitution to resolve the matter before they escalate[26].

Political instability and conflict have remained prevalent in some Southern African countries in the post-independence era due to power struggles that gave birth to emergence of one-party states. For example, in Zimbabwe, an operation known as Gukurahundi led to the mass killings of about 20,000 people in 1983 – 1984 and it is argued that that the operation was meant stymie political pluralism in the country[27]. Political repression continued in Zimbabwe when the government cracked down on the opposition political parties and coalition of civil society organisation during general elections in the early 21st century[28]. The ZANU-PF led government has often been accused abducting and torturing members of the opposition. The leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai was severely tortured in police custody on several occasions[29]. The internal factional battles within ZANU-PF led to the removal of President Robert Mugabe through a coup in 2017[30]. The post-Mugabe government led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa is viewed as reformist in both the political and economic sphere. Nonetheless, the economic situation has deteriorated since the July 2018 elections.

Lesotho has also struggled with shaking their authoritarian leaders for 48 years. After losing the 1970 National Assembly elections to the Basotho Congress Party, then Lesotho Prime Minister Joseph Leabua Jonathan suspended the constitution and tortured members of the opposition, forcing them to flee the country[31]. Twenty-eight years later, post-election political violence broke out in Lesotho because the opposition believed the 1998 general elections had been rigged[32]. These problems have continued into the 21st century and Lesotho has held three general elections held over the last five years[33]. There was even an attempted coup on 30 August 2014 against Prime Minister Tom Thabane that jeopardised the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and made Millennium Challenge Account compact to be at stake[34].

Nevertheless, the recent political violence in Lesotho and Zimbabwe associated with protests against the results of the general elections indicate that instituting democratic processes may not reduce conflict in a region[35]. Often political instability can also be caused by a lack of service delivery and general dissatisfaction with a government. For example, Madagascar has experienced a large amount of civil unrest since the collapse of the socialist regime in the state in 1989 and the election of President Albert Zafy in 1992. The Zafy government failed to employ policies to reduce poverty and strikes and other protest actions broke out. As a result, in 1996 Zafy’s rule came to an end, and elections were called in November of that year. Didier Ignace Ratsiraka won the election in 1996 but was voted out of office in 2001 to Marc Ravalomanana[36]. The results of the elections were highly contested, and the two opposing parties mobilised their followers to engage in armed confrontations[37].

The political unrest in Madagascar intensified in 2009 when violent anti-government demonstrations (that included looting, arson, and the deaths of between 70 and 80 people) broke out. Once again, people were unsatisfied with the way the government had attempted to address economic challenges facing the country. Allegations of corruption and suppression of freedom of expression made against Ravalomanana by his rival, Andry Rajoelina have also intensified the conflict[38]. Ravalomanana ousted from office in, but the conflict continued. Since then there have been several attempted coups that have resulted in death of undisclosed number of people in the country. In 2009 political riots caused the United States of America to suspend the 2008 AGOA Trade Concession[39]. This adversely affected export of cash crops, such as vanilla. In addition, the World Bank suspended financial support to the government of Madagascar[40]. Therefore, while there is a history of post-election violence in Madagascar, the main catalyst for conflict in the region is the failure of the dictatorial government to properly address issues in the country and improve economic growth. This combined with the suppression of freedom of speech has resulted in the Malagasy people using violence as the only means to push for change in their country.

However, conflict in SADC has steadily decreased over the past two decades, by and large thanks to increased regional integration. SADC was formed with the sole purpose of linking member states to regional economies, to strengthen the region’s economic performance, enhance its political stability, and foster peace[41]. Conflicts amongst member states can hinder the regional bloc’s objective of promoting economic and social development through cooperation and economic integration. Therefore, the SADC Treaty was drafted in order to guide member states towards peaceful resolutions for conflicts in their countries. The treaty promotes sustainable and equitable economic growth and socio-economic development; deeper cooperation and integration; as well as good governance and durable peace[42]. These shared aims inform the region’s quest for collective stability and sustainable development, all of which can be realised through regional economic integration[43]. This is easily achievable as Southern African region is politically and socially interconnected and interdependent[44].

Southern African countries have also undergone the process of political and economic transition since the turn of the century. Even though each member state claims to be democratic, the degree to which democracy exists differs through experience of transition and how political parties have consolidated their power[45]. Nevertheless, there are many successes Botswana is cited as the most democratic country in Africa with a history of peace, stability and democratic elections since its independence in 1966. South Africa and Namibia have also been commended for their democratic constitutions and respect for the rule of law since their independence in 1994 and 1990 respectively. Malawi and Zambia have made transitions in the early 1990s from decades of one-party states to multiparty democracies. In Mozambique, a successful transition from three decades of war to peace in 1992 made way for a vibrant period of reconstruction and development. In Angola, an end to decades of war was only accomplished after the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in early 2002[46].

Even though there are isolated incidences in the region, SADC is characterised today by relative peace and conflict-free environment. Most member states presently enjoy manageable levels of social conflict and internal security and stability. This peace and stability should bode well for future economic development and the sustainability of social and political movements aimed at attaining greater democracy, making SADC truly exceptional on the continent in this regard[47]. This is an indication of the level of stability and respect for and expectation of civilian rule that is not found elsewhere throughout Africa[48].

By Kudzai Tamuka Moyo, Michael Andina and Tsepiso Rantso


[1] Feierman, S. 1990. Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania, University of Wisconsin Press: Madison.
[2] Musambachime, M. 1987. ‘Rural Political Protest: The 1953 Disturbances in Mweru-Luapula’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp.: 437-453. Available At: https://www.jstor.org/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[3] Musambachime, M. 1987. ‘Rural Political Protest: The 1953 Disturbances in Mweru-Luapula’, ibid.
[4] Mamdani, M. 1996. Citizen and Subject, Princeton University Press: Princeton.
[5] SAHO 2018. Zimbabwe, on the South African History Online Website, viewed on 14 November 2018, from https://www.sahistory.org.za/; GoZA 2018. History, on the Government of South Africa Website, viewed on 14 November 2018, from https://www.gov.za/.
[6] GoAO 2015. The History, on the Government of Angola Website, viewed on 14 November 2018, from http://www.governo.gov.ao/; GoMZ 2015. The Struggle for Independence, on the Government of Mozambique Website, viewed on 14 November 2018, from http://www.portaldogoverno.gov.mz/.
[7] Khawas, M. 1977. ‘Southern Africa: A Challenge to the OAU’, Africa Today, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp.: 25-41. Available At: https://www.jstor.org/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[8] Friedland, E. A. 1982. ‘South Africa and Instability in Southern Africa’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, Vol. 463, Issue 1, pp.: 95-105. Available At: https://journals.sagepub.com/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[9] Davies, R. 1992. ‘Emerging South African Perspectives on Regional Cooperation and Integration After Apartheid’, Transformation, No. 20, pp.: 75-87. Available At: http://pdfproc.lib.msu.edu/ [Last Accessed 5: November 2018].
[10] Matlosa, K. 1999. ‘Conflict and Conflict Management: Lesotho’s Political Crisis After the 1998 Election’, Lesotho Social Science Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp.: 163-196. Available At: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[11] Chimanikire, D. P. 1990. South Africa’s Destabilisation Policy: The Zimbabwe Experience, Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies: Harare. Available At: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/ [Last Accessed: 5 November 2018].
[12] Davies, R. 1992. ‘Emerging South African Perspectives on Regional Cooperation and Integration after Apartheid’, ibid.
[13] Sparks, D. 1993. ‘The Peace Divided: Southern Africa After Apartheid’, Indicator South Africa, Vol. 10, Issue 2, pp.: 27-32. Available At: https://journals.co.za/ [Last Accessed: 5 November 2018].
[14] Sparks, D. 1993. ‘The Peace Divided: Southern Africa After Apartheid’, ibid.
[15] Friedland, E. A. 1982. ‘South Africa and Instability in Southern Africa’, ibid.
[16] Dana, L. P. & France, N. 1996. ‘Small Business in Mozambique After the War’, Journal of Small Business Management, Vol. 34, Issue 4, pp.: 67-71. Available At: https://www.questia.com/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[17] Cammack, D. 1987. ‘The “Human Face” of Destabilisation: The War in Mozambique’, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 40, Issue 40, pp.: 65-75. Available At: https://www.tandfonline.com/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[18] Cammack, D. 1987. ‘The “Human Face” of Destabilisation: The War in Mozambique’, ibid.
[19] Bauer, G. & Taylor, S. D. 2005. Politics in Southern Africa: State and Society in Transition, Lynne Rienner Publishers: Boulder. Available At: https://www.rienner.com/ [Last Accessed: 20 October 2018].
[20] Burnley, C. 2011. ‘Natural Resources Conflict in Democratic Republic of the Congo: A Question of Governance?’, Sustainable Development Law & Policy, Vol. 12, Issue 1, pp.: 7-11. Available At: https://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/ [Last Accessed: 6 November 2018].
[21] Olaopa, O. R. & Ojakorotu, V. 2016. ‘Conflict about Natural Resources and the Prospect of Development in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, Journal of Social Science, Vol. 49, Issue 3, pp.: 244-256. Available At: http://krepublishers.com/ Last Accessed: 6 November 2018].
[22] Olaopa, O. R. & Ojakorotu, V. 2016. ‘Conflict about Natural Resources and the Prospect of Development in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, ibid.
[23] Olaopa, O. R. & Ojakorotu, V. 2016. ‘Conflict about Natural Resources and the Prospect of Development in the Democratic Republic of Congo’, ibid.
[24] Gwenhamo, F., Fedderke, J. W. & de Kadt, R. 2012. ‘Measuring Institutions: Indicators of Political Rights, Property Rights and Political Instability in Zimbabwe’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 49, Issue 4, pp. 593-603. Available At: https://doi.org/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[25] Chiweshe, M. K. 2017. ‘Zimbabwe’s Land Question in the Context of Large-Scale Land Based Investments’, Geography Research Forum, Vol. 37, pp.: 13-36. Available At: http://raphael.geography.ad.bgu.ac.il/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[26] DRDLR. 2018. Annual Report 2016-2017, Department of Rural Development and Land Reform: Pretoria. Available At: http://www.ruraldevelopment.gov.za/ [Last Accessed: 14 November 18].
[27] Maclean, S. J. 2001. ‘Mugabe at War: The Political Economy of Conflict in Zimbabwe’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, Issue 3, pp.: 513-528. Available At: https://www.tandfonline.com/ [Last Accessed: 14 November 18]. The numbers of the people killed during the Gukurahundi operation are contested. For a more comprehensive analysis of the operation and number of people killed see: CCJPZW 1997. A Report on the 1980’s Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe: Harare. Available At: http://www.rhodesia.nl/ [Last Accessed: 20 November 18].
[28] Gwenhamo, F. et al. 2012. ‘Measuring Institutions: Indicators of Political Rights, Property Rights and Political Instability in Zimbabwe’, ibid.
[29] Humphreys, J. 2017. Tsvangirai Allegedly Tortured in Police Custody, on The Irish Times Website, viewed on 6 November 2018, from https://www.irishtimes.com/.
[30] AFP 2018. Mugabe’s Party Accuses Army Chief of ‘Treasonable Conduct, on the News24 Website, viewed on 6 November 2018, from https://www.news24.com/.
[31] Letsie, T. W. 2009. What Causes Election-Related Conflict Within Democracies: A Case Study of Lesotho, University of the Western Cape: Bellville. Available At: http://etd.uwc.ac.za/ [Last Accessed: 6 November 2018].
[32] Mothibe, T. 1999. ‘The Military and Democratisation in Lesotho’, Lesotho Social Sciences Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp.: 47-63. Available At: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/ [Last Accessed: 20 September 2018].
[33] LT 2017. IEC will Get Money for Polls, on Lesotho Times Website, viewed on 14 November 2014, from https://lestimes.com/.
[34] Weisfelder, R. 2015. ‘Free Elections and Political Instability in Lesotho’, Journal of African Elections, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp.: 50-80. Available At: https://eisa.org.za/ [Last Accessed: 20 November 2018].
[35] Weisfelder, R. 2015. ‘Free Elections and Political Instability in Lesotho’, ibid.; Sharman, J., Embury-Dennis, T., Cockburn, H. & Osborne, S. 2018. Zimbabwe Elections: Three Dead in Violent Harare Protests as Security Forces Battle Demonstrators After ZANU-PF Win in Parliament Vote, on The Independent Website, viewed on 6 November 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/.
[36] Ploch, L. & Cook, N. 2012. Madagascar’s Political Crisis, Congressional Research Service: Washington, D. C. Available At: https://fas.org/ [Last Accessed: 7 November 18].
[37] Ploch, L. & Cook, N. 2012. Madagascar’s Political Crisis, ibid.
[38] Ploch, L. & Cook, N. 2012. Madagascar’s Political Crisis, ibid.
[39] Andriamahery, A. & Zhou, J. 2018. ‘The Impact of Political Instability on Madagascar Vanilla Exports’, Open Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp.: 27-38. Available At: https://www.scirp.org/ [Last Accessed: 7 November 2018].
[40] Andriamahery, A. & Zhou, J. 2018. ‘The Impact of Political Instability on Madagascar Vanilla Exports’, ibid.
[41] Cawthra, G. 2010. The Role of SADC in Managing Political Crisis and Conflict: The Cases of Madagascar and Zimbabwe, Fredrich-Ebert-Stiftung: Maputo. Available At: https://library.fes.de/ [Last Accessed: 5 October 2018].
[42] SADC 2014. Consolidated Text of the Treaty of the Southern African Development Community, Southern African Development Community: Gaborone. Available At: https://www.sadc.int/ [Last Accessed: 5 October 2018].
[43] Chauvin, S. & Gaulier, G. 2002. Regional Trade Integration in Southern Africa, Centre for Prospective Studies and International Information: Paris. Available At: http://www.cepii.fr/ [Last Accessed: 5 November 2018].
[44] Bauer, G. & Taylor, S. D. 2005. Politics in Southern Africa: State and Society in Transition, ibid.
[45] Bauer, G. & Taylor, S. D. 2005. Politics in Southern Africa: State and Society in Transition, ibid.
[46] Bauer, G. & Taylor, S. D. 2005. Politics in Southern Africa: State and Society in Transition, ibid.
[47] Cawthra, G. 2010. The Role of SADC in Managing Political Crisis and Conflict: The Cases of Madagascar and Zimbabwe, ibid.
[48] Bauer, G. & Taylor, S. D. 2005. Politics in Southern Africa: State and Society in Transition, ibid.

Kudzai Tamuka Moyo

Former Regional Analyst

Michael Andina

Former Regional Analyst

Tsepiso Augustinus Rantso

Role: Research Associate
Contact: tsepiso@politicaleconomy.org.za
Tsepiso is a Development Practitioner specialising in cross-sectional research, agricultural and rural development...

Serge Hadisi

Role: Research Associate
Contact: serge@politicaleconomy.org.za
Serge is an Economist with extensive research and publications on sustainable economic development focusing on social development in sub-Saharan Africa...

Fay Hodza

Former Junior Research Associate

Xolisile Tsitsi Ntuli

Former Regional Analyst

Pamelah Cheuka

Former Junior Research Associate

Ross Oliver Douglas

Role: Editing and Research Specialist
Contact: ross@politicaleconomy.org.za
Ross is a Writer, Editor and Historian specialising in rural development in South African history...

Charl Swart

Role: Editing and Research Specialist
Contact: charl@politicaleconomy.org.za
Charl is a Political Scientist specialising in constitutional democracy...

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