Policy Brief 13: the SADC Parliamentary Forum’s Role in Building Democracy

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum should be transformed into a fully-fledged and official regional parliament. This will foster democratisation in the region and strengthen its capacity to assist national parliaments in their role as check and balance on executive power.


The Southern African Development Community (SADC) currently does not have a legislative branch which would serve as the popularly elected representative institution of SADC people at the level of SADC governance. The closest organisation that resembles such a body is the SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF).

The SADC PFwas established in 1997 in accordance with Article 9 (2) of the SADC Treaty as a regional inter-parliamentary body composed of thirteen regional parliaments.

Schillinger (2006: 2) describes the SADC PF as “an umbrella body for national parliaments and parliamentarians…an inter-parliamentary union of Southern Africa.”

Member parliaments are Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Madagascar, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Parliaments are crucial in strengthening democratic governance in their countries. Parliaments across the world are increasingly active in boosting democratic governance in their immediate regions. This activist approach by parliaments is largely informed by the fact that parliaments are the bedrocks of democracy, governance and democratic accountability[1] – and should therefore not only push for democratisation in their countries of domicile but also regionally, continentally and even globally.

The SADC PF has been criticised by some observers as unable to build democracy in their own countries and the region more broadly. According to Willibrod Peter Slaa:

“The role of a democratic parliament, apart from legislating, is to ensure oversight on behalf of the respective voters. Over the years the functions of legislation have been effectively diminished in most parliaments, not only in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, with legislating steered by the executive and parliaments usually acting as a rubber stamp, passing into law what is proposed by the government.”[2]

The democratic role of the SADC PF

SADC PF then describes itself as “a formal mechanism to perform an oversight and monitoring role of SADC’s work and structure”. Parliaments are the legislative arm of governments; they should ideally promote transparency and accountability. Parliaments should also address governance problems like corruption, nepotism and the mismanagement of resources.

The SADC PF aims to address these democratic governance challenges, by debating and discussing the underlying causes of poor governance. SADC PF particularly worked on strengthening the capacity of SADC parliamentarians. Many parliaments and parliamentarians have been criticised for lacking capacity and poorly executing their mandates (Magadza 2009). To address this, the SADC PF was instrumental in creating the SADC Parliamentary Leadership Centre, which trains members of parliament and SADC staff (Schillinger 2006, 7).

The SADC PF places great emphasis on strengthening democracy in the region.  SADC PF has a two-pronged approach to democracy. The first focus is on citizens – the SADC PF aims to ensure all SADC citizens are aware of SADC initiatives and play an active role in government initiatives, both nationally and regionally.

The second focus is on SADC governments and institutions. The publication of the SADC Anti-Corruption Protocol of 2001, is one example of how the SADC PF hopes to decrease corruption, by encouraging the creation of public accounts committees in all national parliaments (Schillinger 2006, 6).

SADC PF has observed 21 elections since 1999.  Whilst one might argue that observation has little impact on election behaviour, SADC Secretary General Mutukwa argues that sometimes merely being present at an election makes a difference and constrains people’s behaviour (Magadza 2009). Based on these observations the SADC PF has developed and adopted the Electoral Norms and Standards for the SADC region. This document provides standard, against which states can assess their management of elections. (www.sadcpf.org)

SADC PF has also placed a great emphasis on gender equality and within SADC. This culminated in the SADC protocol on Gender in 2008 (Magadza 2009). The SADC PF hopes to promote more female parliamentarians as well as more advocacy around gender rights in all member states. SADC PF has been commended for its “very practical activities to promote good governance, democracy and regional integration” (Terlinden 2004, 8).

The SADC PF Democracy Building Challenges

Key decisions within SADC are often taken by the Heads of State and Governments (Saurombe 2009: 103-104). Consequently, policy decisions are seldom made with the involvement of parliamentarians, be it at a SADC or National level (Slaa 2004, 24). SADC parliamentarians often have very little say or power to change such decisions.

SADC regional trade policy is an obvious example. In most instances, SADC-wide trade agreements were not tabled in parliament and rather signed off by the executive (Saurombe 2009: 103-104).

Regional integration policy is another. Slaa says that regional integration policy formulation in SADC “has been exclusively the prerogative of the executive (and) parliamentarians have been involved marginally at the level of ratification …” (Slaa 23).

SADC citizens are not well informed of SADC PF initiatives either.

Key challenges which undermine SADC PF’s democracy building role:

SADC PF has no legislative power

Schillinger (2006: 2) describes the current SADC PF as a parliamentary assembly that still needs to be transformed into a “fully fledged and officially established regional parliament.” Schillinger argues that for this to happen executive and legislature power needs to be shifted away from national parliaments towards a supranational parliament.  Even when the SADC PF does have some authority, it is limited. For example the SADC-PF does have the right to scrutinise the budget and make recommendations, however, none of these recommendations have to be taken into account and addressed (Terlinden 2004: 7).

SADC leaders’ insistence on sovereignty

SADC leaders are reluctant to cede their countries sovereignty to a regional parliament. In essence, they are reluctant to cede executive power to elected representatives. Before the SADC PF can be turned into a fully-fledged regional parliament, SADC leaders will have to cede their insistence on retaining “sovereignty” of the countries. Treliden captures the sentiments of this debate, when he aptly notes: “Given their relatively weak position Regional Assemblies can effectively only gain ground that the executive is willing to cede to them at some point”(2005: 8).

Lack of Resources

Resources, be they financial or human, are scarce in most SADC PF member states. The question is often posed – how many states are willing and able to divert resources toward SADC? (Schillinger 2006:3). The Seychelles revoked their SADC-PF membership (but continue to be a SADC member state) because the financial burden became too high (Terlinden 2004, 10).

There is an over-reliance on donor funding, within SADC, which compromises the structure’s autonomy. The SADC PF is partly financed by donors or co-operating partners – particularly the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), and the Africa Capacity Building Forum (ACBF) – who fund Forum programmes (Shejavali 2009).  It is disconcerting to note that if the EU stops its’ funding, the whole SADC Secretariat based in Botswana, will have to be closed down (Saurombe 2009:104).

SADC Parliamentarians appear not to take SADC PF seriously

Because of its lack of authority, resources and funding, many SADC PF parliamentarians appear not to take the forum seriously. Delegates from member states rely on donations for travel and subsistence and are often poorly prepared for meetings, with some being accused of seeing these meetings as holiday opportunities (Saurombe 2009:104).

Conclusion and key recommendations to strengthen SADC DF’s role in building democracy

Country parliaments must embark on a series of parliament – civil society and community engagements to explain the role of the SADC PF.

SADC should adopt measures that can ensure information and training of citizen rights to overcome various obstacles (geographical, cultural, linguistic and technological) and information gaps to enable all citizens to fully enjoy their democratic rights.

The SADC PF should acknowledge and respect the citizens of the SADC region as political actors and emphasise the importance of voting rights granted to all Southern African citizens. Especially where democratic norms of accountability are weak, the SADC PF has to stimulate the demand for good governance and improved parliamentary functioning on a national level and promote a culture of respect for the active contribution of citizens in any political process.

Besides the potential of strengthening national parliaments, the SADC PF should work on transparency and accountability of elected officials. It should monitor these leaders and their activities by launching parliamentary monitoring and reporting initiatives to stimulate a debate inside and outside of parliament.

To foster a liberal democratic shaped political culture in the region, the SADC PF should work towards building and strengthening a new generation of democratic political leadership and to give them the opportunity to present their concerns and provide critical as well as innovative policy input.

The SADC PF must push stronger for the formation of a SADC Parliament.  There needs to be political buy in from all national governments.

Country representatives to the SADC PF must lobby their executives to ensure a SADC parliament is given priority as much the AU Parliament.

Since the early 1990s, the SADC-PF has attempted to obtain approval from the SADC Summit to transform into a fully-fledged SADC regional parliament that would serve as the representative, legislative and deliberative organ of the region.

Mechanisms for citizen involvement have to be created on a national and regional level for a future SADC Parliament to become a forum in which citizen preferences can be aggregated and expressed as public policies.

In order to transform into a regional parliament, a Protocol would need to be developed and adopted by the SADC Summit, which would then need to be signed by the SADC Heads of State and Government, and ratified by SADC parliaments.

“If established, the SADC parliament would become the legislative arm of SADC and would complement the role of the SADC Summit, Council of Ministers and the Tribunal. It will have an oversight role and have law-making powers. It would approve the SADC budget, among other functions” (Mutukwa 2009).


Magadza Moses “Does SADC require a regional parliament?” interview with Kasuka Mutukwa- General Secretary of the SADC PF. May 7 2009  www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=406020 Accessed: July 10 2010

Matlosa K “Managing Democracy: A Review of SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.” Paper Prepared for the EISA Democracy Seminars Series, 21st October 2004, Auckland Park, Johannesburg

Nalisa Rosemary “Regional Parliament Essential for Integration.” Politics-Southern Africa. www.ipsnews.net/africa/interna.asp?idnews=23999 Accessed: July 01 2010.

Phiri Patson “ SADC Regional Parliament to Deepen Integration.” 29 June 2010. All Africa- www.allafrica.com/stories/201006300785.html Accessed: July 10 2010

SADC PF Website www.sadcpf.org (Accessed: July 05 2010)

Saurombe Amos “ Regional Integration Agenda for SADC “ Caught in the winds of change” Problems and Prospects.” Journal of International Commercial Law and Technology. 4.2. pp100-105 (2009)

Schillinger HR “The Role of Parliaments in supporting governance and development in the SADC of Tomorrow.” Revised version of the panel discussion on The Role of Parliament in Governance and Development at National and Regional Level.  At the SADC-PF 10th Anniversary Commemoration. Maputo 6-7 June 2006.

Shejavali Nangula “Southern Africa: SADC-PF Defends Its Financial Integrity” 13 February 2009 http://allafrica.com/stories/200902130628.html (Accessed: July 05 2010)

Slaa WP “Challenges for the SADC Parliamentary Forum: Experience and Contribution.” 2004 http://www.iss.org.za/uploads/GUARDSLAA.PDF (Accessed: July 05 2010)

Terlinden Ulf “African Regional Parliaments – Engines of Integration and Democratization? ” Bonn, September 2004

Terlinden Ulf “African Regional Parliaments/ Parliamentary Bodies as Engines of Integration: Current State and Challenges.” Roundtable on The Interface Between Regional Parliamentary Bodies and Pan-African Parliament. SADC Parliamentary Forum/Friedrich Ebert Stifung Namibia, Lusaka, Zambia 8-9 August 2005

http://www.sadc.int/gender/index/browse/page/365 (Accessed: July 05 2010)

[1] Prosper Vokouma, A Presentation of the Strategic Development Plan of the Parliament of Burkina Faso 2004 – 2014

[2] Willibrod Peter Slaa, Challenges for the SADC Parliamentary Forum: Experience and Contribution

Dr David Monyae is co-director of the Confucius Institute. He is an International Relations and Foreign Policy expert providing advisory and management services to organisations, companies and institutions. In his role as a policy analyst at the Development Bank Southern Africa, he undertook major research on Regional Economic Communities in Africa. He holds a PhD in International Relations and is the Section Manager: International Relations Analysis for the Parliament of South Africa, where he provides Strategic Management, Parliamentary Foreign Policy Formulation, Monitoring and Analysis. He has lectured on South Africa's foreign policy and Africa's International Relations in the Department of International at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has published widely and is a respected political analyst featuring in both national and international media outlets.

To read publications by David Monyae on our website please click here.

Comments are closed.