Is Mugabe’s Chairmanship A Risk To The Future Of SADC?

Written by Andrew Friedman

Since 1992 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has attempted to “promote sustainable and equitable economic growth and socio-economic development through efficient productive systems, deeper co-operation and integration, good governance and durable peace and security among…” its member states.

The Community includes 15 countries as far north as the Democratic Republic of the Congo all the way south to the Cape of Good Hope and the island states of Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles, has long stood as a forum for economic development as well as good governance and human rights.

The Community has also been an effective player in international affairs, ensuring collaboration between member states. This is put at risk by the unsurprising election of Robert Mugabe, longtime strongman of Zimbabwe, to the SADC’s chairmanship.

Let us start with why Mugabe’s election is unsurprising.

Despite the excessively well documented conflicts between Mugabe and the West, his bombastic rhetoric and tyrannical rule have not had the same effect on his relationships and perception south of the Sahara.

Mugabe’s consistent “us versus them” rhetorical and political style has led him to be seen as a stone wall against imperialism and neo-imperialism from Western powers and multinational corporations.

This is enhanced by Mugabe’s personal connections, fostered decades ago during anti-colonial struggles, that are in many cases now high ranking political leaders from SADC member states.

Andrea Jeska, a German journalist who has spent a life covering sub-Saharan Africa, told Deutsche Welle that when researching her most recent book on Zimbabwe she discussed Mugabe with now-former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, asking how a committed democrat could be friends with the authoritarian Mugabe.

According to Jeska, “He got very cross and said one doesn’t desert a friend just because he has fallen on difficult times.”

This is not to say that Mugabe is a universally beloved figure in Southern Africa. Not only does his regime fail to respect human rights and govern inclusively, Zimbabwe’s failed economic policies undermine his credibility in the mainly development focused SADC.

According to South Africa’s Business Day Live “critics say Mr Mugabe’s regional standing has been undermined by an economic crisis in Zimbabwe, which they partly blame on his seizures and redistribution of white-owned commercial farms to landless people among the black population.”

However, between Mugabe’s high ranking friends in SADC member states and his stalwart anti-western stances that are often perceived as against neo-imperialistic interests, Comrade Bob has a much greater perception in the SADC countries than he does in the West. This is vital for his ascension to the chairmanship of the SADC.

A Different Perception

As his perception is much different, it begs the question why his ascension to the chairmanship is problematic. After all, if the SADC is supposed to be a collaborative body between member states, why would external perception matter?

The answer can be found in Mugabe’s speech opening last Sunday’s SADC summit where he would be elected to the chairmanship.

According Zimbabwe’s Newsday, Mugabe’s major speaking theme was self-reliance for the Community. While the idea that the continent must be free from foreign aid and intervention is a familiar one for Africa-watchers, Mugabe went further, decrying foreign funding of the organization itself.

“Our continued over-reliance on the generosity and goodwill of our cooperating partners tend to compromise our ownership and sustainability of our Sadc programmes. How can we proudly claim SADC to be our own organisation when close to 60 percent of our programmes are externally funded,” he asked.

Further, he stated that the organization “should not be tempted to introduce or embrace, too many programmes which in the end we fail to fund from our own resources.”

The new chairman is afraid of the influx of foreign funds into the SADC, an organization that has historically had trouble raising needed funds from foreign sources.

Western countries and multilateral finance institutions have, in the past, questioned the “maturity” of the SADC in its ability to handle large scale projects. This has led to constant discussions regarding a “regional development fund” that is, as yet, not off the ground.

Already reticent funding sources will not react with open wallets to Mugabe’s statements on foreign funding.

While this follows Mugabe’s historically staunch anti-Western rhetoric that has often made him a star in circles afraid of western dominance, it spells trouble for the organization, and it’s projects’, funding. This could have broad implications on the success of the SADC’s ambitious infrastructure, governance and other collaborative works.

While recent studies show the Africa rising narrative is more than just words, millions are still left in dire poverty. Additionally, of the 15 member states of the SADC, only five (South Africa, Mauritius, Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho) are considered “free” by Freedom House, meaning the community requires a great deal of good governance and human rights assistance.

Mugabe’s economic track record does not lead to much hope regarding his ability to raise funds across the SADC that will make it an effective and self-funded body. His fiery rhetoric and international relationships do not lend themselves to the belief that he will be willing or able to raise foreign funds.

This leaves only cutting programs, something Mugabe has alluded to, in a time where international and regional collaboration is vital for the SADC countries. In short, Mugabe’s ascension to the chairmanship is a genuine risk to the SADC’s future.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and freelance consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.