President Jacob Zuma, with Swaziland’s King Mswati sitting next to him, during the opening ceremony of the 37th Southern African Development Community summit of heads of states and governments in Pretoria. Picture: GCIS
Last week, South Africa took over the chairmanship of SADC. Frankly this is meaningless. The importance or impact of this “leadership” must maybe be understood in the context of the fact that the previous so-called chair was King Mswati III of Swaziland.

Go figure that someone who is perpetually oppressing his people and does not embrace democracy was considered appropriate to chair this regional body. During his tenure, I am not aware that the issue of oppressive regimes would have featured on the agenda of the Southern African Development Community.

In the meeting where Mswati was handing over to President Jacob Zuma - who himself is under siege at home as a leader - there was no discussion about the protests happening in Swaziland against the totalitarian stance in that country, where political parties are not allowed to operate freely.

By turning a blind eye to this, SADC is making itself irrelevant in the lives of its citizens.

The Lesotho situation has at least demonstrated that with some concerted effort to intervene, something may well be gained, with Lesotho having now managed to hold an election after the turmoil that engulfed that country.

So there is every reason for SADC to be interested in domestic affairs that result in the oppression of ordinary people.

It is, however, interesting that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), that came to the brink last year because its leader would not give up power when his time was up, received a mild and almost mealy-mouthed mention that in effect seeks to justify President Joseph Kabila’s term in that country even further, by urging the electoral body to announce a new timetable for elections.

This is a recipe for disaster. For a country as well endowed with resources as the DRC, there is frankly no reason why SADC did not insist that the election timetable agreed by all parties last year as part of the ceasefire negotiated by parties, must be respected.

What SADC leaders did was to close ranks around a despot, who seeks to extend his power beyond the constitutionally permissible tenure.

It’s a sad day that these leaders, most of them in power for umpteen years, see nothing urgent in resolving a precarious situation that may result in a perpetual state of war and emergency in the DRC.

It is clearly becoming a trend that where there is despotic tendency, SADC is found wanting. Recently we saw Zambia also ill-treating its opposition leaders, detaining them over frivolous charges that were clearly politically motivated.

On the eve of the SADC summit, after weeks in unnecessary detention the opposition leader was released conveniently just before the SADC summit, because a complaint was obviously lodged with the SADC secretariat to raise this at the meeting, which would have embarrassed the president.

These dictatorial tendencies no longer seem to be the preserve of President Mugabe, who is ruling Zimbabwe with an iron fist. The leaders of Africa have to be more serious about living the democratic ideals.

As if all the stories are not enough, last week saw a farcical election taking place in Angola. Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for 38 years, passed a law that would inhibit his successor from changing the head of the army and the police for the next eight years. And just for good measure, he will remain the head of the ruling party.

This makes a mockery of the change of power, especially after four decades of one man ruling continuously. Whoever comes to power will have no real power.

There is frankly no difference between this arrangement and Sam Nujoma changing the constitution to give himself a third term of office when the constitution only allows for two.

African leaders have not learned from these embarrassing incidents. To attempt manoeuvres of remaining in power, even if by proxy has become a norm. To also remain in power until way after retirement age is taking Africa backwards.

While the rest of the world is moving towards younger and younger leaders, the average African leader is in his late 70s. Here at home no contender for the ANC presidency is below 55 years of age - in fact we we could end up with someone in her mid 70s as our next head of state.

The issue of younger leaders is directly linked to whether or not structures such as the AU and its related bodies can inject a new sense of urgency in dealing with Africa’s challenges, or it will be a case of nostalgia of the old days of liberation where liberation movements fail to modernise and naturally affect the ability of the continent to interpret democracy in more modern terms.

The big Achilles heel of all the current structures is an inability to hold each other accountable. When the African Peer Review Mechanism was launched, there was huge reluctance to support it from many Africa leaders - and as we speak only 33 countries are signatories of this mechanism that could potentially identify blockages and areas of improvement.

For it to be effective, accountability must not be a choice countries can opt out of. This debate also comes up a lot when structures such as the ICC are critiqued. While there may be valid points about African solutions for African problems, this becomes a slogan that’s hollow in the face of failure to create a common African mechanism that can hold leaders such as Mswati, Kabila and Dos Santos accountable - not only with their peers but with their own people; where national laws are undermined in the full knowledge that a dictator can arrive in Sandton and be adulated and even elevated as a leader among nations when back home he is the pain in the back of his own people.

So do you really think these dictators even care who the chair of SADC is? Quite frankly I have also stopped caring. Just wake me up when the next chair takes over.

* Tabane is author of Let’s Talk Frankly and host of Power Perspective on Power 98.7

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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