‘Keep out the meddlesome ones’
Zimpapers Television Network spoke to Sadc Executive Secretary Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax at the bloc’s headquarters in Botswana last week, focusing on issues like the role of foreign observers in African elections, economic management in Southern Africa
AFRICAN countries have ample capacity to conduct elections and are justified to bar intrusive Westerners from observing their polls, Sadc Executive Secretary Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax has said.
In a wide-ranging interview with Zimpapers Television Network at Sadc Headquarters in Gaborone, Botswana last week, Dr Tax also said the first fruits of Sadc’s industrialisation strategy — initiated by President Mugabe — would be seen within two years as value chains take root across Southern Africa.
Responding to a question on Western criticism of Zimbabwe’s 2013 harmonised elections, Dr Tax said: “If you go by that, then all elections on the continent won’t be credible. Elections in the region are observed by the African Union. Elections are observed by Sadc and other partners.
“For us, as Sadc, we are part of the African Union, and if it is very clear that our conclusions and African Union conclusions are the same, then we believe that we did our job. Would it happen that we have differences in terms of conclusions, then it will be an issue of concern.
“We don’t know what their measures are. We don’t know what their criteria are. We don’t know how they do it, so I cannot align myself with something which I am not party to.”
Dr Tax said it was time Africans took charge of their systems and gained confidence in their capabilities.
“When you go to elections, you have to explain how you want to do it because elections are not about interfering with internal processes.
‘‘There are instances, I am not going to mention a country (it’s within Sadc), where one of our external partners wanted to be part of the counting process.
“And they wanted to even count before the Electoral Commission Board. They wanted to go a step further to put their own instrument. Now, are you observing or you want to be part of the internal processes? We don’t go and interfere in internal processes . . . even if you are not sure about the system, which is being used, ask and get an explanation.”
On economic growth, she said: “In Sadc, we have micro-economic convergence criteria.
‘‘We have agreed that for us to measure whether an economy is moving in the right direction, GDP should not be below (a particular level), inflation should not be higher than (a certain point) and debt-sustainability should not be below this, and we are within those ranges.
“The only thing that I may admit that it is still a challenge is that yes, we are seeing economic growth but the economic growth has not translated to addressing poverty, which, for us as a region, is our ultimate objective.
“What we need to do and are doing now is to understand that if economies are growing, as assessed via the micro-economic indicators, why are we not addressing poverty to that level? And that is what we are now busy trying to see.”
*** Q: You have been the Executive Secretary of Sadc for the past four years, and you are the first woman to hold that post. What does this milestone mean for you and African women?
A: I appreciate this appointment and the trust bestowed upon me. Such positions are competitive, strategic and politically sensitive. And Sadc, in particular the Heads of State, felt it fit to provide me this opportunity to serve the organisation.
With regard to women, I encourage them that these positions are not for any particular gender. One just has to be confident, prepare themselves and take up the challenge.
Q: Tell me about your relationship with your male counterparts given the strong link between leadership and patriarchy.
A: My relationship is very good; excellent because it depends on how you relate with them yourself. If you go there and say, “I am a woman; here I am, I need favours”, then you might find challenges.
In the region, I interact with Heads of State, ministers, and I get proper guidance and the needed support without being looked at as a woman. I am looked at as the Executive Secretary of Sadc.
I also relate and work closely with my counterparts in other regions. For example, in Comesa we have a tripartite arrangement and we have taskforce of CEOs. We lead and they chair on a rotational basis. In that configuration/ arrangement, what I have seen is respect, support and encouragement. I have not felt that I am here and that I have been looked at as a woman. No.
Q: Some former liberation movements in Sadc say regional instability is largely caused by their former colonial masters. Do you agree?
A: Yes and no. I may agree because dependence is still there. We are still very dependent on external partners for many reasons. So you can translate that because of your dependence, one can influence your processes.
But it also depends on how you (play) your cards when you negotiate.
Even if you depend on a partner, you also have to understand your strength; that I am negotiating a trade deal and I am the one who is going to provide the raw materials or whatever else you are coming with.
You have to capitalise on your strength. Yes, you may have that influence, but you have ways to manage that influence, depending on how you play your cards.
Q: Have Sadc countries been able to do that; competently negotiate trade agreements?
A: That is a difficult one. Even though I am an economist, let me look at it from an economic-political point of view.
We have to understand where we have come from and where we are. In most of our countries, some people say you have been independent for 50 years, but we are seeing very little.
But when they do that, they compare with other countries which have been independent for 300 years. So, it is a journey, and I am looking at it from a historical-economic-political point of view.
The focus when we were struggling for independence was to get political and flag independence.
And when we got independence, we were to prepare ourselves to manage our economies. That preparation took different routes because some member states had to define ideology.
Now it depends on the ideological route they took. Also, we had to prepare ourselves in terms of socio-economic requirements, for example, skills development. Before even going to skills development, you had to come up with a vision: Where do I want to go 50 years from now? What is my mission and how do I go there?
I think that is where, maybe, it took some time for most of our countries before coming up with a clear mission and from that mission to say how do I prioritise to make sure that I arrive at that mission?
You need to know what you are prioritising because you have to make sure that you have the elites who are going to manage the administration. How long does that take?
It’s not an activity that you say I am going to see the impact. Maybe, also, it took time in that we had a few people who can negotiate and articulate.
You are seated at a table with a partner from a European country. It’s a team of 20 people, experts in different aspects. And you are a team of five people and you don’t have deep expertise in those areas.
So, you will try your best to negotiate, but you have to understand that you may end up without the best deal. That has been realised now and that’s why you will see that the dynamics have changed completely.
Q: Do you believe most Sadc countries appreciate the role of effectively managing their economies?
A: They do. That’s why now, if you have been following what is going on in most of these economies, first even if you take Sadc as an example, we have now prioritised management of our economies, in particular, resources.
We have our resources and we need to make sure that we manage those resources for our benefit.
And you can see the alignment with the priorities.
Most countries now have focus on making sure our priorities are right. We also understand that for those that we feel are right priorities, how are we going to realise them? What do we need? And if this is what we need, how do we put in place those requirements?
Q: Is it reasonable, in your view, to have taken this long to get to the point of managing our economies?
A: It is not a straightforward question with a straightforward answer. I always listen to the comparison:
There are late-comers, but they have leap-frogged others (I’m avoiding mentioning countries). But those had a benchmark. They learnt from the mistakes of others.
So, it took time because we had to learn. Maybe we learnt the hard way. It has taken time. Perhaps we would have done it much earlier, but it is a process which was expected to take place. It’s not unique to the Sadc region. It was the same process even in other parts of the developing world.
Q: Let’s talk about industrialisation. The Sadc Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap is the region’s guide into coming years. What has been impeding Africa’s quest to industrialise?
A: It’s the same reason; prioritisation. Conventionally, people will talk about lack of skills, lack of finances, infrastructure gap.
But, again, I’m going to (the question) why that? My answer will be appropriate prioritisation and not appreciating the opportunities that exist in utilising co-operation in regional integration.
We started in the Free Trade Area. We knew that we have opened up our market, but did we go a step further to say yes we are opening up our markets, what should we do?
And this is a tough lesson because it is not only within Sadc.
We have also had a number of trade agreements with other parts of the world, but it was very clear that the major challenge has been supply side constraints.
Now it goes back to appropriate prioritisation. If you want to trade, you must make sure that you have the capacity to produce, compete and trade.
Yes, you have a lot of priorities, but which should come first? Is it the social? It is also about balancing your priorities because as a country, you have a lot of competing priorities.
Q: Critics look at the general performance of an individual country and then tie it to that country’s leadership . . .
A: In Sadc, we have micro-economic convergence criteria. We have agreed that for us to measure whether an economy is moving in the right direction, GDP should not be below (a particular level), inflation should not be higher than (a certain point) and debt-sustainability should not be below this, and we are within those ranges. Last year, we had challenges, which were attributed to a number of factors.
We had drought. We had the commodity crisis — worldwide. The only thing that I may (admit) is still a challenge is that yes, we are seeing economic growth but that economic growth has not translated to addressing poverty, which, for us as a region, is our ultimate objective.
What we need to do and are doing now is to understand that if economies are growing as assessed via the micro-economic indicators, why are we not addressing poverty to that level?
And that is what we are now busy trying to see. What kind of measures should we put in place to make sure that we address poverty issues?
Q: When can we begin to see tangible results in this march towards industrialisation?
A: “Tangible results” is subjective and depends on how you define it. Industrialisation is not an event; it is a process. And if you ask me what I am proud of since I joined this organisation; that is one of the achievements which I am seeing but it will take time.
The decision was taken in August 2014. When you say you want to industrialise, it is not just a statement. You must make sure that you have the tools and capacity. (The strategy) is a milestone even though it is not impactful yet. But once you have a strategy, it is not enough.
You need to have a plan. So, the next stage we were now preparing to have was an operationalisation plan, which, again, in one year was put in place, and was approved in March 2016.
The decision was, prepare a strategy and also to start frontloading industrialisation. So, we started working on the value chains we profiled. We have already identified pharmaceuticals, minerals and agro-processing.
We are now moving to coming up with value chains. So, progress is taking place.
Within two years I believe we are going to have value chains in the different countries and then you can see the impact; not only the output but also the outcome of industrialisation.
Q: How would you describe President Mugabe’s chairmanship of Sadc (August 2014-August 2015)?
A: (laughs) I don’t want to assess my leaders, but what I will say is that it was not only President Mugabe, but a number of Chairs.
When you assume chairmanship, there are two things which you do. First, you decide on the theme, and based on the theme, a work programme is prepared.
His theme was “Value Addition and Beneficiation”, and that is what drove industrialisation. Now, I’m throwing this question back to you: Since we started this conversation, how much has industrialisation featured?
That is a clear response that indeed, there has been an impact not only during his tenure but a continuous impact.
Q: Botswana is hosting an American military base and some reason that this is a threat to regional security given the hostile relations between the West and some Sadc countries.
A: I wouldn’t like to comment on that because I have not analysed that matter.
Q: Has the matter come up at Sadc meetings?
A: It’s not part of the Sadc agenda and personally, I have not analysed it.
Q: Zimbabwe will hold elections next year. Based on Sadc standards, what is your assessment of the country’s electoral system?
A: If I analyse the electoral system, it will be premature. I wouldn’t like to present my assessment on assumptions.
And I am saying this because according to our structure and guidelines on democratic elections, before a country goes to elections, we get a notification from member states that “we are going to conduct elections and we invite you to come and observe those elections”.
Before we send the election observation mission, what we do first is send what we call an assessment mission, which assesses electoral preparedness in terms of legislation, the security situation, among other areas.
The last election, as you are aware, was credible as pronounced by Sadc.
And since then, the Government has been in power, and has governed. We have not, as an organisation, received any complaints.
You cannot gauge one election to the other because you are talking of a period of four years, but we have no reason . . . to doubt that things have changed that dramatically to expect that there are going to be massive challenges during these elections in terms of the law, in terms of the environment. We don’t expect that.
Q: Some Western groups attacked the credibility of that election . . .
A: If you go by that, then all the elections on the continent won’t be credible.
Elections in the region are observed by the African Union. Elections are observed by Sadc and other partners. For us, as Sadc, we are part of the African Union, and if it is very clear that our conclusions and African Union conclusions are the same, then we believe that we did our job.
Would it happen that we have differences in terms of conclusions, then it will be an issue of concern. We don’t know what their measures are. We don’t know what their criteria are. We don’t know how they do it, so I cannot align myself with something which I am not party to.
Q: The feeling has been that the presence of Western groups gives more credibility to African elections . . .
A: Is it because we don’t trust our systems? Is it because we feel that we don’t have credible people to do that?
That is now where we also need to understand that we are Africans. It is our continent. It is our region and we have an obligation of leading our continent.
When you go to elections, you have to explain how you want to do it because elections are not about interfering with the internal processes. It’s not about that.
There are instances, I am not going to mention the country (it’s within Sadc), where one of our external partners wanted to be part of the counting process. And they wanted to even count before the electoral commission board. They wanted to go a step further to put their own instrument.
Now, are you observing or you want to be part of the internal processes? We don’t go and interfere in internal processes, but even if you are not sure about the system being used, ask and get an explanation.
That is why we even have pre-election (assessments). How did you conduct your voter registration? This is what we did. Was everybody given an opportunity to be registered? Yes. And we consult widely.
We don’t consult only with the government, but a number of stakeholders.
If you have doubts, you have to communicate those doubts before to enable the government to take the necessary action. Is the electoral commission independent enough? Do you feel that it is independent? Yes. If it’s independent, then let them do their work.
But if you now want to be the electoral board, you want to be the one to conduct the voters’ register, you are not helping. Because what you need (to do) is to help by enabling that country to have the required systems.
Q: So, from the example you have given, is it fair then to say that countries that bar Westerners from observing their elections are justified?
A: I may say they are justified if there are justifiable reasons. And they may not be justified because I don’t have the facts, I cannot rule.
But what I am insisting on is that you need to observe elections based on your guiding principles and also understanding that that is a sovereign country with their legislation. Elections are governed by constitutions and electoral and other laws.
So, you have to understand those laws as well. A country cannot just wake up in the morning and say I don’t want you to come and be part of my elections. There must be reasons.
Now, because I don’t know the reasons, it’s very difficult for me to say this was the case and this is how it happened. But I am trying to explain a (possible) scenario.
ZANU-PF Secretary for Administration Dr Ignatius Chombo (left) and Chief Chidziva admire some of the wares on display at the Zvimba North Cultural Festival in Mutorashanga yesterday.
Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax