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Regional themes > Poverty reduction frameworks and critiques Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Confronting the Region: A Profile of Southern Africa - Sanusha Naidu and Benjamin Roberts


The southern African region is made up of all countries south of and including Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is a plateau region edged by many escarpments, cliffs or steep slopes. The region comprises 14 countries and spans a geographical area the size of the continental United States.1 It has a population of approximately 200 million people, with most of the inhabitants concentrated in the region’s cities and large urban centres. The rural dwellers remain dispersed.

Climatic conditions vary in the region, and topographical features range from savanna grasslands to deserts. The eastern parts of the region have more moisture owing to the influence of currents in the Indian Ocean. While Mozambique on the east coast experiences an average annual rainfall of between 30 and 56 inches, countries such as Namibia in the west have arid conditions with an average annual rainfall of between four and 12 inches. Such conditions make the region vulnerable to erratic climatic patterns of droughts and floods.

In recent years, the region has witnessed increased political, economic and social engagements. After several decades of political and military confrontation and unrest, accompanied by economic decline and social instability, the region is now experiencing a degree of political stability with increased prospects of economic recovery. The cessation of hostilities in Angola, the signing of a peace agreement in the DRC and the peaceful elections in Lesotho in 2002 herald possibilities for greater integration and cooperation in the region. From an economic perspective, and despite the imbalances amongst states and the relatively small market size, the region has an aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) of US$226,1 billion. This is more than double that of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and equivalent to more than half the aggregate GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. The latter bodes well for the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which should be formalised by 2008.

Figure 1: The SADC region
Figure 1: The SADC region

Yet, in spite of the progress made on the ground, the region is not without its challenges. While countries in the region may share a common vision of rapid economic and political progress, and a commitment to a common development path, the region is beset with crises that undermine sustainable development and overall efforts towards regional integration. Politically, the peace dividends obtained, especially in the DRC and Angola, have been offset by the ongoing political and economic crises in Zimbabwe, and by the lack of basic political and democratic freedom in Swaziland. More importantly, democracy in the region is still too young and fragile for many countries to claim sufficient experience in democratic consolidation. Economically and socially, the region is still far from overcoming the imploding humanitarian disaster of HIV/AIDS. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, together with other health problems such as tuberculosis, malaria and cholera, has placed countries at risk of increased mortality rates, a skewed demographic profile, a growing number of orphaned and vulnerable children, and the internal displacement of people. The latter problem has been compounded by a food security crisis. In effect, the region’s poverty seems to be deepening as a result of widening inequality; weak political, social and economic governance structures; and a burgeoning crisis in health.

Despite these composite problems, countries in the region are moving towards consolidating regional integration and cooperation under the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP). Approved in 2003, the RISDP is designed to provide Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states, their institutions and policy makers with a coherent and comprehensive development agenda (based on strategic priorities) for social, political and economic policies over the next 15 years. However, implementation of the RISDP will not be without its challenges. Regional identity will remain a core problem. While SADC member states have committed themselves to the task of regional cooperation, regional identity amongst them is still remote. Attachment to national identity and sovereignty dominates the focus of the summit agendas, and the reluctance to hold errant and despotic leaders accountable is evidently based on a sense of fraternity. However, it may be that this reluctance is actually part of a policy of constructive engagement or quiet diplomacy. On the ground, indications are that SADC is still far from being consolidated as a regional bloc with a common agenda. Moreover, it is being hamstrung by the majority of the states’ overlapping memberships of other regional integration networks such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the East African Community (EAC).

The region thus represents a matrix of competing interests and contending difficulties. Nonetheless, it is one of the more robust regions on the continent, with increased movement toward a free trade area and democratic practice. Many donors and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) alike estimate that southern Africa’s reasonably well-developed infrastructure and diverse natural resource base have the potential to lead the rest of Africa towards a more prosperous 21st century.

The core focus of this profile is to provide an understanding of the main developmental and institutional challenges that confront the region by:

  • Analysing its political, economic and social contexts, and identifying common trends;
  • Reviewing progress made in the promotion of greater regional integration; and
  • Investigating the extent to which member states adopt a regional identity.
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