Professor Ngwabi M Bhebe
THE Frontline States (FLS), an alliance of the independent countries of southern Africa that was established in 1975 under the auspices of the three Pan-Africanist leaders of Zambia, Tanzania and Botswana, played a pivotal role in dismantling white colonial rule and apartheid in the sub-region.
They provided invaluable material, logistical, diplomatic and political support to nationalist movements fighting for the independence of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South West Africa (Namibia), and the Republic of South Africa. These three countries were the last bastions of exclusionary white minority rule in our sub-region.
Most importantly, the Frontline States offered sanctuary to the liberation fighters from the aforementioned countries that were operating in exile for obvious security reasons. Thus Zimbabwe`s liberation fighters aligned to the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (Zanla) and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra) infiltrated the country from the hospitable environs of either Mozambique, Zambia or Tanzania. The same applies to the African National Congress (ANC) whose cadres largely used Angola, Mozambique and Zambia as safe havens for organising their insurgent excursions into apartheid South Africa.
Perhaps the Frontline States’ seminal diplomatic success was the way they out-manoeuvred South Africa in the resolution of the Zimbabwean/Rhodesian Crisis in the late 1970s. By 1979 South Africa was determined to establish a constellation system that would secure her sub-regional military, diplomatic and economic hegemony.
In March 1979 Pik Botha, the South African Foreign Minister, announced the Zurich Declaration which called for an “anti-Marxist” Constellation of Southern African States (CONSAS) south of the Zambezi and Cunene rivers. This envisioned regional security and economic bloc was to be composed of South Africa, the Bantustans or Homeland “States” of the Transkei, Bophuthatswana and Venda, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and possibly Mozambique.
The Frontline States opposed this move with vigour as Zimbabwe ultimately attained its independence under the banner of Zanu-PF and it quickly became the sixth member of the organisation. The embedding of Zimbabwe into the Frontline States orbit signified the collapse of CONSAS. This move also represented the most serious political defeat of apartheid South Africa.
The CONSAS failure reinforced an emerging international perception of South Africa as a feeble giant, unable to translate her military and economic might into regional diplomatic supremacy. As a result, South Africa which was now encircled by anti-colonial and Marxist inspired countries, became anxious and its foreign policy began to be increasingly dominated by its securocrats such as Generals Magnus Malan and Constand Viljoen. South Africa, therefore, resorted to the use of its military muscle to destabilise the Frontline States and to coerce them from giving sanctuary to liberation movements such as the ANC that was fighting against the apartheid State. This counter-revolutionary total strategy entailed fomenting dissidence in the Frontline states, bombings, and economic destabilisation. This explains why apartheid agents raided activists and bombed ANC offices here in Harare in May 1986.
However, the most lethal component of this destabilising engagement was the fomenting or funding of surrogate armies to undermine the Frontline States. These puppet armies included the MNR in Mozambique, Unita in Angola, the Zambian Mushala Group and Super Zapu in Zimbabwe.
Finally, in spite of the foregoing destabilisations the Frontline States remained resolute in their quest for the total emancipation of Southern Africa. They continued offering support to the cadres who were fighting for freedom in the remaining outposts of colonialism. Ultimately, Namibia attained its independence in 1990 and South Africa also attained majority rule in 1994. The Frontline States alliance was disbanded in late 1994 having achieved its singular objective of dismantling the racist and exclusionary colonial order in Southern Africa.
The genesis of the Southern African Development Co-ordinating Conference (SADCC), the precursor entity to what we now know as the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), is closely connected to the Frontline States’ attempts to counter apartheid South Africa’s sub-imperial Constellation of Southern African States (CONSAS) strategy of 1979-1980.
In order to forestall South Africa’s manoeuvres of establishing a formidable political, economic and security bloc through CONSAS the Frontline States issued the Arusha Declaration in 1979 which called for the creation of SADCC, an alternative bloc that was to promote economic liberation among the independent states and also reduce their economic dependence on Pretoria. As I indicated above, the Zimbabwean Question proved to be a test case in these diplomatic contestations.
If Zimbabwe fell into the CONSAS orbit then South Africa would register a major diplomatic and security triumph that had both regional and international ramifications. As M Evans notes, if Zimbabwe were to align itself with the Frontline States then SADCC would become a reality and South Africa would be effectively isolated. Ultimately, when Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980 it naturally gravitated towards its ideological allies in the Frontline States. Zimbabwe’s joining of the Frontline States made the consummation of SADCC possible in April 1980. Within SADCC the economic sphere was the new frontier in the quest for independence.
With the formation of SADCC apartheid South Africa was henceforth surrounded by countries that were politically, militarily and economically aligned. These independent countries were determined to end white minority rule in the apartheid State.
In 1992 the SADCC morphed into the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) through the Windhoek Treaty. The Sadc is a very important regional bloc because it was consummated with a vision of establishing a free trade area and promoting sub-regional economic growth. It was also to be a platform for mitigating regional conflicts and cementing political co-operation. Over the years Sadc’s Organ on Politics, Security and Defence has either intervened or arbitrated in several inter and intra-state conflicts from the 1990s to date. Such interventions to restore order and security were made in countries like Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo that experienced civil strife in the late 1990s. In short, the Sadc is a very critical organisation for co-ordinating sub-regional economic growth and entrenching peace and harmony. The Sadc is today regarded as the most viable regional economic bloc in Africa.
Distinguished scholar Professor Ngwabi Mulunge Bhebe is a Country Researcher and Member of the Management Board of the Hashim Mbita Sadc Liberation Struggle Project. He is the Vice-Chancellor of the Midlands State University.