Democracy at work:  The Republic of Somaliland fits the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States definition that a state should have a permanent population, defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Picture: TRISTEN TAYLOR
Democracy at work: The Republic of Somaliland fits the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States definition that a state should have a permanent population, defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Picture: TRISTEN TAYLOR

The immigration official at the border between Ethiopia and the Republic of Somaliland says that, in his seven years of working at the small and dusty border post, he has never seen a South African passport before.

During the day, the air in Somaliland’s capital city Hargeisa is still and listless in the heat. There is not a great deal to do except nap to the lullaby of an electric fan, listen to the mu’addhin calling out to the faithful, or chew khat. Alcohol is banned, so there is no cold beer to help the day drift on by.

During the night, a cool breeze and sugary milky coffee lubricate conversations with Somalis, who often have American or British accents. The diaspora is returning home and investing heavily in the country.

The usual topic of coffee shop conversations is the national elections: Somaliland went to the polls on November 13. After that conversation, there tends to be a bombardment of questions about President Jacob Zuma’s corruption.

I inevitably end up apologising for SA’s xenophobia, like I have had to do in every country on my 1200cc motorcycle ride up Africa.

Three parties contested the election: Kulmiye, Wadani and For Justice and Development. To reduce the potential for conflict, the parties held carnival-like marches on alternating days. The general feeling is that the politicians will accept the election results.

Street campaigning in Hargeisa is a million miles away from Kenyan electioneering — where I got tear-gassed twice — or SA’s omnipresent threat of political violence.

Somaliland is not exactly a hot spot for tourists: I did not see any. Perhaps the lack of tourism is due to the false impression that al-Shabaab rules the streets and there is no difference between Hargeisa and lawless Mogadishu in Somalia. If you are foolish enough to come to this part of the world, and move through the streets in anything but a tank, says the conventional wisdom, you’ll be kidnapped by zealots of a perverse distortion of Islam. On the plus side, the YouTube video of your rolling head should get a few clicks.

But Somaliland is the safest and friendliest country I have ever been in. My Johannesburg mentality keeps freaking out with the locals: why are you talking to me? What do you want? Are you trying to set me up for some scam by inviting me over for a cappuccino?

Instead of being mugged, stabbed, conned or generally intimidated, I’m in danger of tooth decay from sweet spiced tea. And then there is that disquieting feeling of a returning faith in humanity. Maybe tourists don’t come to Somaliland because it is not an internationally recognised state. The UN, for example, sees Somaliland as a part of Somalia and not as an independent country. This is where matters start to get complicated. Is Somaliland a state? International recognition can’t be the determinate of statehood. Even if we don’t declare a camel to be a camel, it is still a camel. Camels are what they are. Generally, cantankerous animals that often run unexpectedly out of the bush and onto the road.

Thus we are left with the pressing question what a state is. For if Somaliland is one, then SA’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation has some explaining to do.

There are two main definitions of a state. The first definition comes from article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933), which declares that a state should have a permanent population, defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Check on all four counts. Borders, budgets, rule of law, people, embassies, traffic police — Somaliland has them all, along with 9GB of prepaid mobile data for R75.

In 1918, the noted German sociologist Max Weber defined the state as "a human community that [successfully] claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory".

Check again. No road transport was allowed on voting day. The borders were closed. Police manned the voting booths. Social media was shut down. The human community of Somaliland has that monopoly on legitimate violence, just like the South African state does.

If it runs, chews, smells, looks and bites like a camel, then it is a camel.

So why hasn’t SA recognised the conservative but democratic Republic of Somaliland? Maybe the government is petrified that if it recognises the divorce of Somalia and Somaliland, it would have to give in to the powerful Cape Party and allow the Western Cape to become the world’s first Hipster Republic.

The more likely explanation is that the ANC as a liberation party is dead. Buried deep under tons of overpriced Gupta concrete.

Reflecting the personal inclinations of Number One, the ANC as a governing party has a foreign affairs platform that supports anything but democracy.

Omar al-Bashir, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Joseph Kabila, those are our guys.

As the ANC’s commitment to supporting the development of democracies outside of SA has waned, we should not be surprised that its commitment to democracy inside SA is withering. In 2015, our friends in the People’s Republic of China abducted five booksellers in Hong Kong.

We didn’t say anything then, did we? And now look at what the President’s Keepers are trying to do.

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