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African trade is crippled for a reason and fine words will not change that

African trade is crippled for a reason and fine words will not change that

CAPE TOWN: As the ink was drying on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement signed in Rwanda a few weeks ago, a crisis was developing at Kasumbalesa border post, between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia.

Delays in transit clearance procedures at crossing had resulted in a 70km queue of trucks on the Congolese side of the border, mostly laden with mineral exports destined for vessels to the south. Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) officials intervened to sort out the mess, blaming the situation on the failure of the two countries to integrate their customs systems.

On a good day Kasumbalesa is a problematic border, characterised by delays and inefficiency. Trucks can get stuck for weeks, particularly on the Congolese side, where roads are poor and few roadside facilities exist.

Protectionism through the back door undermines the publicly stated commitments to regional integration by leaders. A flagship project of the AU, the AfCFTA aims to fast-track intra-African trade and economic development by creating a market of more than 1-billion people with a combined GDP of over $2-trillion. It contains provisions for countries to reduce tariffs by 90% and address impediments to trade, thus enabling intra-African trade to grow by more than 50% from less than 15% at present.

The spirit of free trade is well represented at public forums across Africa. But policies and actions at a national level tend to paint a different picture, one that is characterised by slow movement towards the very agreements that African leaders sign up to.

Why would the continental initiative be different? It is instructive to ask what has happened to the last bold trade initiative signed up to in Africa, with almost equal fanfare: the Tripartite Free Trade Area.