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Policy Thoughts

03 June, 2014


The Ethnic Factor in Southern Africa


by Hussein Solomon


The world is witnessing a resurgence of a cult of origins with an emphasis on virulent ethnic and religious identities. The thorny issue of independence for ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the killings of Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic illustrate the problem well.

In Southern Africa, too, the ethnic factor has historically played a significant, though often ignored, role in the conflict dynamics of the region. Whilst the conflict between the MPLA and UNITA in Angola was seen through the prism of the Cold War with the governing MPLA seen to be allied to Moscow and Cuba whilst UNITA rebels were perceived to be pro-West, underlying this dominant narrative was the ethnic dimensions of Mbundu and Ovimbundu. Similarly in Mozambique the conflict between the governing FRELIMO and the rebel RENAMO were seen through the paradigm of Marxist FRELIMO vs pro-West RENAMO, the ethnic dimensions, however, were clearly evident in the competing Shangaan and Ndau ethnic constituencies of these respective antagonists.


A relic of past conflict in Angola (Photo: M Worm)

Ethnicity, however, is not merely a historical phenomenon for the region. Examine the repeated issue of Barotseland separatists in Zambia or the conflict dynamics of the Banyamulenge Tutsis in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and one would understand the need for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to embark on pro-active measures with which to prevent latent ethnic conflict to repeat the tragic ethnic overtones of the conflict in the Ukraine.

SADC can take its cue from international law – specifically the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 18 December 1992. Article 1 of the Declaration calls on states to protect the existence and identities of minorities and to adopt appropriate legislation to achieve these ends. In other words, SADC can push to achieve compliance of this Declaration within the SADC region – in the process creative inclusive as opposed to exclusionary states.

Another proactive measure SADC could adopt is to look at the European example. In January 1993, a High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organisation on Security and Cooperation in Europe – OSCE) was created. The purpose of the High Commissioner and his small secretariat is to give an objective evaluation of incipient conflict, as well as concrete recommendations for its resolution. In this way an early warning mechanism was integrated into an early response system. SADC could do well to emulate the example of the OSCE and create its own High Commissioner on National Minorities.

Given the potency of ethnicity in the Southern African region, we need not await an explosion before we engage in reactive measures. Rather, proactive steps can be taken to prevent a Ukraine or Central African Republic scenario from developing in this volatile region.


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