THE urgent demand for a regional response to the drought has spurred new cooperative mechanisms that are expected to survive the current crisis and are already changing the political landscape in southern Africa.
Regional cooperation structures, aid officials say, have strengthened interaction at several levels and are likely to accelerate the integration of South Africa - long a pariah to its black-ruled neighbors - into the region.
The regional structures include coordination of six transport corridors, an operations control center in Johannesburg, a logistics center in Harare, Zimbabwe, and a computerized communication system.
The relief effort is expected to hasten South Africa's inclusion in the 10-nation Southern African Development Community, aid workers and diplomats say.
SADC was founded in its original form, the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, 12 years ago to promote economic independence from apartheid South Africa.
"The whole region is now very aware that it is acting as a region," says Roger Buckland, SADC technical adviser with the Food Security Technical and Administrative Unit. "It is no longer politically impossible for us to talk to South Africa.... There has also been increased cooperation at a number of levels as a result of the response to the drought."
SADC officials have quietly cooperated with South African transport, grain, and weather officials at a technical level since preparations for the drought emergency began 10 months ago.
Buckland says the breakthrough came at a meeting held by SADC agriculture and transport ministers on April 16, when it was decided to set up the corridor groups, establish the Logistics Advisory Center (LAC) in Harare, and launch a joint United Nations/SADC drought appeal through the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
Since then, South African officials have been fully integrated into SADC's regional strategic meetings.
"The interaction and cooperation with our neighboring states has been far beyond our expectations," says Willem Burger, senior manager of the South African Rail Authority, Spoornet. "A year ago we didn't even talk to SADC. Now we have an excellent relationship."
(At an August summit in Namibia, leaders of SADC countries signed a treaty that changed the regional body's purpose from reducing dependence on South Africa to economic integration - eventually to include South Africa, once a democratic state is in place.)
The most striking example of the coordination that has developed out of the spotlight of politics is the Grain Operations Control Center (GOCC) in the Johannesburg headquarters of Spoornet. It was set up in April to help coordinate the interstate flow of drought relief.
Here South African officials interact daily with representatives from Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia to coordinate cross-border port, rail, and road activities.
"The Control Center will continue to serve a vital purpose once the drought is over," Mr. Burger says.
"It is unfortunate in a way that a crisis like the drought had to force us together. But the fact is that we are participating fully at the technical level. It is only a matter of time before the same happens at the political level," he says.
The GOCC has worked so well that there is broad consensus in the region that it should continue once the relief effort is completed.
"This will be one of the spin-offs of the operation," says Andrew Willson, the Spoornet official who heads the GOCC.
The LAC - run jointly by SADC and the WFP and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) - coordinates relief logistics throughout the region and releases a monthly information bulletin and a daily shipping bulletin. David Morton, WFP's southern Africa director, sees signs that LAC, too, will survive the drought.
USAID has played a key role through its support for the LAC and GOCC, funding the upgrading of rail stock and leasing contracts between SADC countries and South Africa, and sponsoring the computerized communication system.
"Our first priority has been to enhance the regional transport system," says Ted Morse, USAID director for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa Programs. "We have spent $200 million over the last two years. So when the drought hit, we were in a good position to help."