Contested statehood: The TBVC states in comparative international perspective

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Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei existed as nominally independent states for different periods between 1976 and 1994. The group of former black African homelands (Bantustans) of South Africa had become independent under laws adopted by the South African parliament and their own respective legislatures. Except for South Africa, no other existing state recognised the independence of the so-called TBVC states; the latter experienced collective non-recognition. Because their very right to statehood was challenged by the world community, the four entities can be designated as contested (or de facto) states.

At the time the TBVC countries were neither the first nor the only contested states in the world. Previously Katanga and Biafra were in this situation. The contested statehood of the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara), the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Palestine, Somaliland, Kosovo, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia coincided for varying periods with those of the TBVC sister countries and continues to this day. Abkhazia joined them in 1999. To be sure, several of today’s 10 contested states enjoy a limited measure of de jure recognition but none of them have received the “birth certificate” of confirmed statehood by being admitted to full membership of the United Nations. All of them, like the TBVC states before, experience de facto international statehood because they meet the basic requirements of statehood under international law.

In the growing scholarly interest in such entities over the last 30 years or so, the TBVC countries are seldom if ever mentioned in the same breath as other contested states. This neglect could be attributed to ignorance of the existence of the TBVC group or to a tendency to dismiss them out of hand as mere products of apartheid and hence not worthy of academic inquiry.

Against this background the main aim of the present article is to examine the TBVC entities in the context of other contested states, drawing on theoretical insights developed in recent academic studies. In so doing similarities and differences between the TBVC countries and other contested states can be identified. The focus will, however, be on Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei, not the others. A further caveat is that not all features of the TBVC foursome’s contested statehood can be examined in detail in this article. Preference will be given to the causes and international manifestations of their contested statehood. Still, the inquiry will hopefully be comprehensive enough to prove that the TBVC countries qualify as further examples of a distinct international actor ─ or more species of the same genus ─ called the contested or de facto state. At the same time the TBVC entities add to the diversity among contested states.

The simple analytical framework used in this inquiry is based on the three phases in the life cycle of contested states: their origin (how did these entities end up in the invidious, uncomfortable and undesirable situation of contested statehood?); their existence or survival as contested states (relegated to the margins of the world community of confirmed states and typically faced with serious existential threats from their countries of origin or parent states); and finally exiting contested statehood (how did this actually occur in several cases or could it conceivably happen in other instances in future?) based on the assumption that most contested states wish to escape this status by gaining de jure recognition and joining the world of confirmed states. In short, the framework for analysis focuses on getting in, getting on and getting out of contested statehood.

In dealing with the emergence of contested states, attention is paid first to the basic criteria of statehood enshrined in the Montevideo convention of 1933, supplemented by a few more recent requirements widely applied by confirmed states. It is found that the existing 10 contested states and the TBVC countries broadly meet the Montevideo standards, but many of them fall short of the additional criteria. Purported states born of secession from their original states or through other actions proscribed by international law ─ such as aggression, occupation and racial discrimination ─ had their claims to statehood seriously challenged by the international community. This still applies to, among others, Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Somaliland and Kosovo. The four TBVC states were, as products of apartheid, conceived, born and bred in the sin of racial discrimination; apartheid had even been declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations. This particular origin placed the TBVC countries in a class of their own among contested states.

The second phase in the life of contested states involves their existence in conditions of international opposition and isolation. These realities can complicate the affected countries’ performance of six typical tasks: promoting security or just basic survival in the face of external hostility, state building, nation building, democratisation, economic development, and international relations. Given their complete lack of international recognition (except from South Africa, their creator and parent state), the TBVC entities were utterly beholden to South Africa for providing them with an economic and financial lifeline, governance assistance and security support. South Africa acted as a benevolent hegemon in the patron-client relationship it maintained with each of the four sister states. In all these respects there are solid grounds for closer comparisons between the TBVC countries and other contested states. Where the South Africa-TBVC relationship may well differ materially from the foreign ties of other contested states, is in the extensive network of multilateral institutions ─ styled the Economic Community of Southern Africa ─ that bound them together.

Getting out of contested statehood is the final of the three phases. Biafra and Katanga exited this status and were reincorporated into their original states through the use of force by Nigeria and the Congo respectively. The same happened much later to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (returned to Russia) and the Republic of Serbian Krajina (reintegrated into Croatia). While acknowledging that the leaders of some contested states may be reasonably content with and derive personal benefit from the status quo, most contested states seek to escape from international exile by graduating to confirmed statehood with all the attendant rights, privileges and responsibilities conferred by international law. Of today’s 10 contested states, Kosovo is best placed for higher honours. Several of the others may remain in international limbo indefinitely.

The TBVC entities’ independent existence ended in 1994 when they were reincorporated into the “new” post-apartheid South Africa in a remarkably peaceful fashion. The main reason for their return to the fold was that their country of origin underwent thorough-going regime change. This is a rare way of ending contested statehood, made even more exceptional by four related entities doing so simultaneously.

Keywords: apartheid; black homelands; Bophuthatswana; Ciskei; contested states; de facto states; nation building; recognition of states; separate development; state building; Transkei, Venda


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Betwiste staatskap: Die TBVC-state in vergelykende internasionale perspektief

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