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The Realities of Regional Security in Southern Africa
Guy Lamb, Senior Researcher


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The conclusion of the Cold War, the termination of violent conflicts in Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique, as well as the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa heralded a period of trust and optimism in Southern Africa. Encouraged by these developments, Southern African leaders sought to establish a peaceful and integrated regional community, which would include a common security regime. The idea of common security is derived from the acknowledgement that certain problems transcend national borders, which states and their security institutions are not equipped to deal with. In this respect, as states share an interest in joint survival they should therefore organise their security policies in co-operation with one another to deal with these transnational problems and threats.

These developments resulted in the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC) becoming formalised with the drawing up of a Treaty in 1992, and the renaming of SADCC to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In 1996, the SADC Organ on Politics Defence and Security was created. It was envisaged to be a means to establish a common security regime in which SADC countries would co-ordinate their policies and activities in the areas of politics, defence and security. However, today, a Southern African regional, common security community still remains an unfulfilled vision. This paper seeks to explain the reasons for why this state of affairs exists.

Southern African Regional Security Institutions: A Brief Overview

SADC’s approach to regional security has been significantly influenced by the notion of "human security". Human security challenges the established state-centric conception of security (which dominated the era of the Cold War) by asserting that there are multiple threats that defy military solutions. Security is not only perceived to be freedom from physical violence but also the material well being of individuals. Hence the notion of human security incorporates political, economic, societal and environmental dimensions as well.

In Southern Africa, two institutions have primarily dealt with issues of regional security, namely: the Inter-State Defence and Security Committee (ISDSC) and the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security.

The ISDSC was established in 1983 within the structure of the Frontline States (FLS). At its inception, the ISDSC constituted an informal gathering of Southern African defence and security ministers whose brief it was to provide a co-ordinated response to the destabilisation actions of the South African apartheid regime. Since then, the ISDSC has evolved into a more complex and formal organisation, which now is comprised of Sub-Committees on Defence, Public Security and State Security, as well as a number of sub-structures.

The Organ on Politics, Defence and Security was formally established in 1996 by the SADC Heads of State or Government Summit in Gaborone. It is envisaged to be the institutional framework in which SADC countries will co-ordinate their policies and activities in the areas of politics, defence and security. The objectives of the Organ are as follows:

  • To protect the people and safeguard the development of the region against instability arising from the breakdown of law and order, inter-state conflict and external aggression;

  • To promote political co-operation among member states and the evolution of common political value systems and institutions;

  • To co-operate fully in regional security and defence through conflict prevention, management and resolution;

  • To mediate in inter-state and intra-state disputes and conflicts;

  • To use preventive diplomacy to pre-empt conflict in the region, both within and between states, through an early warning system;

  • To promote peacemaking and peacekeeping in order to achieve sustainable peace and security;

  • To promote the political, economic, social and environmental dimensions of security.

  • To develop a collective security capacity and conclude a Mutual Defence Pact for responding to external threats, and a regional peacekeeping capacity within national armies that could be called upon within the region, or elsewhere in the continent.

The Organ is independent of all other SADC structures. It operates at summit, ministerial and technical levels with its own chair. The Chairmanship of the Organ is meant to rotate on an annual basis.

The ISDSC is supposed to become a sub-structure within the Organ, thereby ensuring some form of institutional memory is maintained on how issues of defence and security have been undertaken by SADC in the past.

The Realities of Regional Security within SADC

To date, no effective common security regime in Southern Africa has been realised. In fact, over the past two years, rather than regional peace being maintained, a number of armed conflicts have erupted or re-ignited in the region, as in the case of Angola, DRC, Lesotho and Namibia. Overviews of these various armed conflicts are provided below.

In August 1998, a loose collection of rebel groups supported by Rwanda and Uganda launched a military campaign to oust Laurent Kabila, the president of the DRC from office. This was a position which Kabila had only acquired a year earlier when he himself had led a rebellion with Rwandan support that resulted in the toppling of the kleptocratic regime of Mobuto Sese Seko. Kabila’s demise was forestalled with the arrival of Angolan, Namibian and Zimbabwean troops who were able to repulse the rebel advance on Kinshasa. This war in the DRC continues even today despite the signing of a cease-fire agreement by all major parties in July 1999. The intervention provided the basis for the creation of a defence pact between Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola.

The following month, South African and Botswana military personnel, under the SADC banner, were deployed in Lesotho at the request of the Lesotho Prime Minister, who feared that his government was about to be forcibly overthrown. This situation had materialised due to the combination of the following factors: allegations by the political opposition that the ruling party had committed electoral fraud in the recently held elections; the delayed release of the report on the election results by an independent commission; and a mutiny by junior Lesotho Defence Force officers. Lesotho citizens perceiving the military intervention to an invasion attacked South African soldiers, as well as torched and looted virtually the entire Maseru central business district. After several days, law and order was eventually restored. South African and Botswana troops have now been withdrawn from Lesotho soil as relative peace and security has been secured.

In the latter part of 1998 Angola entered the fourth phase of a four decade war. What initially emerged as an armed struggle between various liberation movements against Portuguese colonial occupation in the 1960s, mutated into a protracted civil war between the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) government and the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) rebel movement at independence (1975). This prolonged state of war has only been momentary disrupted by two failed peace agreements, namely the Bicesse Accords (1991) and the Lusaka Protocol (1994). At this point in time, there appears to be no clear and immediate resolution to this war in sight.

In October 1998, the Namibian security forces uncovered a small insurgent training camp of the Caprivi Liberation Movement (CLM). The over-zealous security forces, in their attempts to capture secessionist rebels, caused some 2 500 Caprivi residents to flee into Botswana. By June 1999 only several hundred refugees were repatriated. The remaining refugees still reside in Botswana. In August 1999, the Namibian security forces were caught off-guard when armed insurgents from the CLM attacked the Wanella border post, local Namibian Defence Force (NDF) bases, a police station, a shopping centre and offices of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation in the Caprivi town of Katima Mulilo. Street battles ensued, but by the afternoon the rebel forces were repulsed by the Namibian security forces. For the first time in the history of the Republic of Namibia a State of Emergency was declared and remained in place for three weeks. During this time the Namibian security forces undertook intensive "mopping up" operations to flush out and capture CLM insurgents. By early September some sense of normality had returned to Katima Mulilo, however, the Namibian security forces are still deployed in large numbers in the area.

These armed conflicts are not only having a destabilising effect in the countries involved, but on the entire region as well. In April 1999 relations between the Angolan and Zambian governments became tense, with Luanda accusing Lusaka of supplying UNITA with arms and other military equipment, which meant a violation of United Nations Security Council sanctions against UNITA. The Dos Santos government even threatened military action against Zambia unless it took the appropriate steps to halt the alleged weapons sales. Relations between the two countries temporarily improved, however earlier this year, relations soured again as Zambia accused the Angolan Armed Forces of launching cross-border air and ground attacks into Zambia’s western and north-west provinces. These military incursions were motivated by the belief that UNITA rebels were operating from these areas.

Namibia has also been drawn into the Angolan conflict as in December 1999 it allowed the Angolan Armed Forces to use Namibia’s northern border region to stage an offensive against UNITA forces in the south of Angola. This decision backed-fired on the Namibian government as UNITA responded by launching retaliatory attacks against Namibian civilians. These attacks resulted in the deployment of the Namibian security forces in the affected areas, and recently it has been alleged that the Namibian Defence Force have established military bases inside Angola.

This state of affairs in Southern Africa is the consequence of a combination of structural, financial, political and institutional factors, which will be discussed below:

Institutional Incapacity

In reality, the Organ is a virtual entity. No action has been taken to formalise the establishment and operations of this body. Hence, regular meetings have not been scheduled. In 1997, the SADC Heads of State and Government Summit symbolically suspended the operations of the Organ. This was most probably due to inertia, and disagreement between member states over the structure and operational procedure of the Organ. For instance, it was reported that some SADC states, like South Africa argued that the Organ should be a subsidiary part of SADC and therefore should be accountable to the SADC Summit. It has also been reported that other states, such as Zimbabwe argued that as the Organ has a unique and specific mandate to fulfil, it should be an entity separate from the SADC Summit. This disagreement has been exacerbated by the fact that the 1996 Gaborone Communique is not explicit on this issue. However, this document refers to this entity as the SADC Organ, and grounds its principles in the 1992 SADC Treaty.

At the 1999 SADC Summit in Maputo it was decided that the Organ would be revived, once again under the Chairmanship of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The Summit also resolved that the SADC Council of Ministers should review the operations of the Organ and report to the Summit. An ISDSC working group with representatives from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were tasked with drafting a Protocol for the SADC Organ, which has subsequently been completed.

In October 1999, an Extraordinary Ministerial meeting of the ISDSC and SADC Ministers for Foreign Affairs was held in Mbabane, Swaziland, in which the structures and method of operation of the Organ were discussed. This meeting recommended to the SADC Heads of State and Government that the Organ should constitute a sub-structure of the SADC Summit. However, at this point in time, the status and operating procedure of the Organ has still not been resolved.

Resource Limitations

SADC suffers from severe funding constraints. It is predominantly externally funded, and financial contributions from member states and private sector institutions is negligible. Critically, as the Organ does not formally exist, it has no dedicated budget.

The Lingering Power of Sovereignty

In order for a common security regime to operate effectively, member states need to sacrifice a certain amount of sovereignty. In Southern Africa, it appears as though many states are not willing to make the necessary sacrifice. States may be resisting the formation of a common security community as they are concerned that should they give up a portion of their sovereignty then regional security institutions may intervene in the internal matters and undermine their authority at some point in the future.


A fundamental ideological division exists between member states. There are two main camps, those states that endorse military solutions to conflict, and those that support the principles and objectives of the SADC Organ. The first group is comprised of Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia. South Africa, Mozambique and to a lesser extent Zambia, belong to the latter group.

In conclusion, in order for progress to be achieved in the establishment of a common security regime in Southern Africa, creative approaches need to be devised to overcome the significant challenges mentioned above. If governments in the region are serious about an "African Renaissance", then a common security community with relevant regional institutions could be an effective vehicle to achieve this in the long run. However, such a community will only be developed if governments in Southern Africa are completely committed to the process, namely that there is the necessary political will. In addition, in order for all states to buy into this process, funding for regional security institutions should be provided by member states from their annual budgets.