President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as chairperson of the SADC visits Mozambique for a consultative meeting with President Filipe Nyusi. The visit forms part of long-standing tradition in the SADC region, whereby newly elected heads of state pay courtesy calls to their neighbouring countries. Pictures: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Necessity remains the mother of invention. The crisis in Liberia catapulted the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) into prominence. The East African Community has become a relative success in regional economic integration because of the various crises in the region, including al-Shabaab and the Rwanda Genocide of 1994.

The 9/11 bombings awoke the international community so forcefully that we witnessed the advent of such multilateral initiatives as the clamping down on money laundering to curb global terrorism. In brief, until a crisis comes along, humans typically drone into a fatal slumber.

The tragic outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa might just be the trigger that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been missing.

After presiding over the political disaster that was Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for decades, the call by South Africa for an extraordinary SADC meeting to tackle the listeria scourge is a promising cotyledon.

It is not entirely a humanitarian gesture, more of an economic imperative, but credit is due if the meeting kick-starts improved collaboration across the region.

When listeriosis had killed more than 180 South Africans by last week, my criticism was that there was no coherent strategy to foil disasters of this nature. Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana were among our neighbours who banned our ready-to-eat meat products, especially from Enterprise and Rainbow. This compromised intra-SADC trade and retarded regional economic integration.

Now, Gerhard Neethling of the Red Meat Industry Forum has told eNCA of a "substantial drop in the selling of the processed products especially; a drop in the prices, pork prices over the last week, and already some threats of retrenchments at various factories".

That happens when an ailment catches the entire regional bloc unawares. Doors get shut on undeserving victims, such as the factory workers at Enterprise in Polokwane, who were reportedly forced to take unpaid leave; or those Tiger Brands shareholders who watched their asset value being eroded. We have not even reckoned with the spill-over effects on the transportation, storage, packaging and processing enterprises throughout the meat industry value chain in southern Africa and beyond.

By initiating this meeting, South Africa at least showed the leadership that could limit the damage, however belated.

When Ecowas intervened in Liberia to stop the crisis in the early1990s, its standing mediation committee established a Military Observer Group (ECOMOG). In doing so, it broke with the tradition of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU), of non-interference.

The reasoning of Ecowas was that the OAU leadership had no intimate experience of the destabilising effects of the Liberian civil war on the region. In doing so, they fashioned a regional intervention model to solve African problems without relying on non-African interventions.

Although it took the efforts of the international community until July 2003 for warlord Charles Taylor to step down, it was not without the involvement of key Ecowas leaders, especially the then Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, that persuaded him to see reason.

It was not surprising, then, that later when Gambian president Yahya Jammeh tried to strong-arm his way into extending his reign after losing an election to President Adama Barrow, Ecowas had the gravitas to force him out.

Regional economic blocs in Africa are vital elements of the rebirth of the continent, but they are often ineffectual. When they do find their voice, however, their work is invaluable.

It was partly due to the hesitancy of the SADC that Zimbabwe had to endure the reign of Robert Mugabe beyond his sell-by date.

The insistence of formr president Thabo Mbeki on his quiet diplomacy contributed to the inability of the regional bloc to act more decisively.

The same story is keeping the DRC where it is.

It does not matter how the SADC eventually finds its rhythm, even if it had to take listeriosis to prompt it out of indecision; we will all know what a great region this could be. May this meeting set the tone for the new dawn of a bolder, more resolute SADC!

* Kgomoeswana is the author of Africa is Open for Business, a media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs, and a columnist for Destiny Man.

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

The Sunday Independent