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Guiding ourselves by the African stars

Business Day, South Africa

Guiding ourselves by the African stars

By Francis Kornegay

23 July 2007

What does the “grand debate” about a United States of Africa have to do with the fate of SA’s provinces?

Some may assume that any linkage is far fetched. However, the time frames in which political leaders and policy planners have to scope out the connectivity between national, regional and continental issues is becoming foreshortened by globalising pressures on SA and Africa.

A “global” view of the South African provinces debate is one of these issues. And tied to this are a host of other issues pertaining to how the post-apartheid political system functions.

From a medium- to long-term perspective, the debate about a United States of Africa has implications for SA’s domestic and regional politics related to how SA should go about sorting out its relations with neighbouring states in the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu), and eventually within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), especially given the imperative of Sacu and SADC merging into an expanded customs union.

Seen in these terms, there are important questions to be raised regarding the political dimension of economic integration in terms of Tshwane’s vision of how a union of African states should evolve in southern Africa.

So, what does this have to do with the future of SA’s provinces? In a word: federalism. In a recent article on these pages about the provincial question, Vinothan Naidoo of the Human Sciences Research Council pointed out the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) resistance to the idea of federalism and general mistrust of the concept in Africa.

But there are federations and then there are federations. And eventually a politically integrated southern Africa cannot avoid adapting some variant of federalism to meet demands for pooling sovereignty in the evolution towards a more united continent.

Hence the need to look at how SA’s provinces can serve as building blocks of connectivity between national and regional governance within Sacu and, ultimately, the SADC. Federalism can mean a confederacy along Canadian lines, including the special regional autonomy of Quebec, or the much tighter system in the US, where the “federal government” is hegemonic. Hegemonic federalism propelled the New Deal recovery of President Franklin Roosevelt, the 1960s “War on Poverty” response to urban black insurgency and the imposition of desegregation against the resistance of racist “state sovereignty” commissions in Dixie. In SA’s case, a strong argument can be ventured that the chronic unrest that keeps surfacing in local municipalities has less to do with the efficiencies of “service delivery” and everything to do with the absence of national anti-poverty mobilisation featuring the type of participatory grassroots development that would resonate “on the ground” in giving ordinary people some control over their lives.

A coherent national “War on Poverty” strategy is totally absent from the unfolding political debate. This has nothing fundamentally to do with a federal state, or a so-called “unitary state”, or SA’s unitary-biased hybrid state, which is neither here nor there in terms of clarity regarding the provinces. It is relevant to the discourse of designing a developmental state.

Why not a “developmental federalism”? The political risk of losing “national executive authority” simply goes with the territory of democratic governance, something that will be confronted sooner or later in the widening pan-African political community being debated. Fully fledged federal provinces would facilitate the next phase of SA’s transition: its regionalisation into a “federal” republic of southern Africa. This implies a need for greater interrogation into the “pooling of sovereignty” within Sacu, and Sacu’s evolution into an SADC customs union as prelude to the federated or confederal integration of their member states.

The pressure for such accelerating integration is not coming from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. It is being generated in part, as Finance Minister Trevor Manual points out, by the need for Africans to define the parameters of European Union (EU) inspired economic partnership agreements . Hence, the significance of the top priority of the recent African Union (AU) summit in Accra: that the AU “rationalise and strengthen” the regional economic communities as pillars of an eventual continental union government. This will place increased pressure on replacing Sacu with an expanding SADC customs union. In the process, this could mean changing a system of linking tariffs to what some see as a regional development funding mechanism that gives Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland (BLNS) a vested interest in SA’s maintenance of tariff barriers. This arguably complicates South African trade reform efforts at a time when it is negotiating preferential/free trade arrangements with other major emerging powers .

At the same time, the BLNS customs union could relaunch itself as the “inner core” of an SADC customs union with a peer review accession mechanism to manage customs union expansion as a political integration tool, much as occurs within the EU . In this manner, a federalisation of southern Africa could occur over time that would also benefit the development of a regional poverty alleviation strategy, a cornerstone of the SADC’s mandate. This provides a regional framework for Zimbabwe’s eventual recovery as well. Call this the southern African route to a United States of Africa .

Seen in this light, the federalising of SA’s provinces has a “made-in- Accra” logic.

Kornegay is a senior researcher on foreign affairs at the Centre for Policy Studies.