By Omar Valdimarsson
Red Cross plays a vital part in the new dynamic in southern
The southern Africa region is like no other, be it culturally,
politically, environmentally — and, lately, economically.
The new dynamic does not go unnoticed by the casual visitor
— one gets the feeling that the enormous problems
and challenges facing this part of the world are at the
same time exciting.
The countries that make up the Southern African Development
Community (SADC) account for more than half of the economic
output of sub-Saharan Africa with an economy estimated by
the World Bank to amount to USD 172 billion. The region’s
growth rate is a steady 6%, compared to Africa’s average
growth of 5% and the industrialized countries’ 4%.
The fact that South Africa — the region’s “economic
locomotive”, to quote Time magazine — has taken
charge of its own destiny, under forceful and popular leadership,
has undoubtedly given added courage and assurance to its
neighbours. Two of these countries are optimistically rising
from the ashes of bitter and devastating civil wars, others
are carefully treading into new-found freedom and/or independence.
Multi-party democracy is taking hold, and the people of
southern Africa are taking charge of their destiny. It is
a time of transition, of new hope for the region.
It is also a difficult time for southern Africa. Natural
and man-made disasters are regular features on the region’s
landscape. While the ten countries are diverse in wealth
and standard of living, all are in the lower half of the
world community as ranked by the United Nations Development
Programme’s Human Development Index. The average life
expectancy in the region is just over 50 years. Malawi has
one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world,
Angola and Mozambique among the highest maternal mortality
rates. AIDS is widespread with nearly a third of some populations
are infected; as a measure of the horrific impact of HIV/AIDS
in this region, no fewer than 5% of all Zambian children
have been orphaned by the deadly disease.
A force at work
“This is it,” said Annie Mamba, chairperson
of the Babani division of the Swaziland Red Cross. “Let
us go inside and visit them. They will be happy to have
Inside the hut was a room measuring approximately two by
three metres. Two rickety beds took up most of the space.
In one of the beds, facing the window, two old women lay
side by side, covered with a woollen blanket.
The southern African sun was hammering down mercilessly
on the corrugated iron roof. It was sweltering hot. “Eee,”
exclaimed Annie, “why are you both in the same bed?
I already said you should not do it. It’s uncomfortable.”
The women said nothing to this — but they were obviously
happy to see Annie. They are mother and daughter. The daughter,
Elizabeth, is paralysed from the waist down. She’s
been lying in that bed for the past 20 years. Both suffer
from arthritis. The mother can no longer take care of herself
nor her daughter. They live alone, with no neighbours for
miles and miles.
“I am very old and sick,” the older woman smiled
weakly. “I am 88 years old. That is very old,”
she continued. “She can barely walk around the room,”
explained Annie, “so we come every week and cook and
clean and take care of them.”
And the daughter — how old is she? “I will
be 65 next February,” she said smiling — and
then added giggling: “I am not young any more!”
Heading back to Mbabane, Annie Mamba was worried. Her branch
did not have the money to carry on the work with the seven
neediest cases in the area. None of them had relatives or
friends to help.
“When you are helpless and poor the family disappears,”
Annie sighed. “No one comes to visit any more except
us and even that is getting more and more difficult. I just
don’t know where to get the money to continue our
work.” There was no easy solution to her problem,
but when asked what would happen to mother and daughter
if help was no longer available, Annie Mamba shuddered,
“What then? What then?” O.V.
Spirit of solidarity
But none of these challenges is insurmountable. The Red
Cross Societies in southern Africa, along with the International
Federation, are playing an ever increasing role in the tasks
at hand, having committed themselves to addressing the needs
of the most vulnerable.
The National Societies in southern Africa — Angola,
Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa,
Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe — form a strong network
across the whole region, each Society already in itself
a national network of dedicated volunteers and skilled staff.
The Federation, represented by its regional delegation in
Harare, is the “architect of cooperation”, facilitating
the sharing of skills, knowledge and experiences across
borders through its regional programmes in health, information
technology, disaster management and preparedness, institutional
and resource development and water and sanitation. Through
its regional set-up in Pretoria and Harare, the ICRC is
cooperating actively with most of these National Societies,
especially in the fields of emergency preparedness, health
and relief as well as dissemination.
Jerry Talbot, Head of the Federation’s regional delegation
in Harare, is optimistic and excited about the tasks before
him and his team: “Many of the hundreds of Red Cross
branches in the region have a large number of trained and
experienced volunteers and staff,” he says. “They
are the obvious and regular first responders to crises and
disasters in their communities. These are people who have
worked in the most difficult of circumstances — large
scale population movements, armed conflict, droughts, floods,
The Federation’s regional delegation for southern
Africa, whose budget for 1998 activities is CHF 1.7 million,
was established in the mid-1980’s to increase National
Society disaster preparedness in southern Africa. In recent
years the delegation became a conduit for National Societies
in the region to come together to tackle common challenges,
be they ongoing natural disasters, issues of integrity which
threaten to compromise the Fundamental Principles or challenges
of institutional development and financial self-reliance.
As a reflection of this solidarity the member National
Societies have formed the Southern Africa Partnership of
Red Cross Societies with a mandate to “strengthen
the collaboration, co-operation and self-determination of
National Societies in the region in order to achieve a greater
level of self-sustainability”.
Omar Valdimarsson is a freelance journalist based in Reykjavik,
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