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South Africa's Neighbors Try Joint Survival Venture

September 20, 1987|Carol B. Thompson | Carol B. Thompson, associate professor of political science at USC, lived four years in southern Africa and is author of "Challenge to Imperialism: The Frontline States in the Liberation of Zimbabwe" (Westview).

The ancient crane lurched and smoke billowed from its steam engine as another ton of Zimbabwean tobacco was loaded at the port of Beira, Mozambique. The crane, first set in operation on the Beira docks in 1907, is a symbol of both the problems and achievements of the nine neighbors of South Africa who are resisting apartheid destabilization.

Mozambicans still have to use the 80-year old crane primarily because of South Africa's war against them, which has cost this underdeveloped economy $6.5 billion in the last six years. The fact that the crane is stil in operation illustrates the ingenuity and skill of Mozambican craftsmen, who make spare parts from scrap metal. Down the wharf a bit, refurbishing has also begun, with Dutch aid, to install the most modern cranes available to serve Mozambique's land-locked neighbors.

South Africa, rimmed on the east, south and west by oceans, is bordered on the north by Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Swaziland is almost surrounded by South Africa, except for a small border with Mozambique, and Lesotho is entirely surrounded. These five countries along with four other neighbors--Angola, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania--established a regional economic organization (Southern African Development Coordination Conference--SADCC) to reduce their dependence on South Africa.

Under colonialism, their economies were built to serve South Africa, with rail links, telecommunications and trade all oriented to the south. For example, Mozambique's economy was set up to service South African production, providing rail and port networks to export the minerals. Its own vast mineral riches (coal, iron ore, titanium, oil) were left undeveloped by the Portuguese.

"This is our region," proclaims South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha. In 1981, one year after the formation of SADCC, South Africa escalated its economic sabotage. It has repeatedly delayed the return of locomotives and wagons to its neighbors and held up shipments of Botswana's beef and Zimbabwe's steel for "technical reasons."

In 1982 South African commandos blew up 32 oil tanks in the port of Beira, costing more than $20 million. The little kingdom of Lesotho often had food imports delayed at the border and in 1986 a total embargo caused a food crisis that toppled the government; a new one was put in place only after consultation with South Africa.

Estimates of the cost of war in Angola and Mozambique; of sabotage raids into Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Zambia; of destruction of SADCC rail lines and bridges, of economic sabotage--all by South Africa--are as high as $4 billion per year, or more than all the bilateral or multilateral aid for the region. In a region of 70 million people, 5 million have been uprooted from their homes.

SADCC's first priority is to reduce the nine countries' dependence on South Africa, beginning with relieving the transport grip that South Africa has over landlocked neighbors. The new Beira Corridor Authority (port, rail, road network) has attracted foreign private and government capital investment, almost doubling the capacity of the Beira port to 2.5 million tons per year. Zimbabwe saves $500 per container by sending it to Beira (360 miles from Harare) rather than via Durban, South Africa (1,260 miles). The port of Maputo in Mozambique has increased efficiency from loading 4 containers per hour to 24 per hour, a rate competitive with Durban.

SADCC now has all members connected by telecommunications satellites. Postal services are coordinated so letters from one to another no longer have to transit South Africa or even Europe before arriving at a neighboring capital city. Electricity grids are connected to reduce dependence on South Africa for countries like Botswana and Swaziland.

When discussing SADCC's dependence on South Africa, a reality almost always ignored is that South Africa needs its neighbors. South African foreign trade constitutes 55% of its gross domestic product. Because its manufactures are not competitive in many overseas markets, South Africa exports $2 billion annually to the region.

SADCC's second priority is to coordinate development in the region. With regular droughts, regional self-sufficiency in grain production is an important goal. Zimbabwe has a two-year supply of corn, even though it regularly ships grain to deficit neighbors like Botswana (drought) and Mozambique (drought and war).

Coordination in industry will take longer for these poor countries, but SADCC has set priorities designed to maximize economies of scale and to equalize production opportunities among the economies: Zimbabwe's integrated steel industry will remain the only one; the first aluminum smelter will be in Mozambique, and Botswana will develop inorganic chemicals based on its soda ash. Each economy produces textiles and hand-tools. Only Swaziland will produce low-cost tractors and Tanzania conventional ones; neither will compete with the other but both will increase production and employment.

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