Southern Africa: whither regional integration?

22 May 2008
As a result of the free trade agreements with the European Union, called economic partnership agreements, regional integration in Southern Africa is in tatters. The question arises: what kind of integration would engender broad-based development?

What kind of regional integration does Africa want for itself? There are officially six regional economic communities (RECs) within the African Union. They are conceived as the "building blocks" of African unity. The RECs are formally constituted entities. They have treaties and constitutions which make it quite clear that the priorities are broad-based development, cooperation and integration. It is not only about trade integration the integration is both political and economic. SADC (Southern African Development Community with 15 member states), one of the six RECs, was founded in the 1980s during the development era. The vision of regionalism was state-led and development-oriented with elements of protection of the domestic and regional markets. The economic cooperation cuts across all sectors. Within the coordinating SADC secretariat, based in Gaborone, Botswana, there are four directorates dealing with clusters of related sectors: industry, trade and energy; agriculture, fisheries and food security; education, health and human development; transport, communications, technology, tourism. There are all in all about 30 different agreements. Some are protocols; others have been ratified as full agreements. There are many other forms of cooperation which are largely invisible: banking cooperation, gun control, security cooperation etc. What has become of those aims for integration? By the mid 1990s, under the influence of the global paradigm which was free trade, and the very direct controls of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank, the economic programmes of SADC were displaced by trade-led, privatisation models of growth. For example, before SADC came up with a region-wide industrial policy, they forged a trade agreement... In the absence of coherent industrialisation strategies they found themselves searching around trying to figure out (what) their sensitive products (were). It was all very ad hoc, because they did not have an industrial policy in place. So neo-liberalism really narrowed the conceptualisation of regional integration. The World Bank and the IMF were promoting the paradigm called "open regionalism", for and towards "global integration", and this was backed by the EU. Many countries were also undergoing structural adjustment programmes, so they were already brought into the idea of unilateral liberalisation. As a result, the idea of the development model of integration shifted toward the neo-liberal paradigm. In this, South Africa was a particular target. The view of the neo-liberal institutions was that while it was important to "discipline" small underdeveloped countries, the potential within South Africa to give a different lead to the integration project was much more serious. It would have been very threatening if South Africa had successfully pursued state-led, developmental regional integration. So the IMF moved decisively into South Africa as the country moved towards democracy in the early 1990s. The direction of economic policy in South Africa was captured by the neo-liberal institutions by manipulating an apparent balance of payment crisis. A neo-liberal South Africa would help to develop a neo-liberal region. The problem is that it is not just external agencies -- the EU (European Union), IMF, the World Bank or other governments -- that were reshaping our vision of regional integration. The governments themselves have been reconditioned and reshaped into neo-liberal agencies. What are people's ideas of regionalism? When we talk about regional integration, we talk about integration at all the different levels: water, energy, telecommunications, trade, industry, food security, agriculture etcetera. Throughout Southern Africa, there is no sector of concern that does not involve regional networks of popular organizations. Regional integration is so much a part of the consciousness of most people. There are regional networks on health, HIV, gender and women's rights, human rights, media etcetera, as well as against structural adjustment, privatisation and other neo-liberal policies. Southern African organisations can always be seen caucusing together at African and international meetings. Some slogans we have used to express the type of regionalism we want include "Reclaiming SADC for Development Cooperation and People's Solidarity" or "SADC: Development Community or Free Market?" How does negotiating with a third party (the EU) complicate regional integration? How can we possibly have an external agreement with the EU when the regional protocols on these issues (as listed above) are in a state of suspended animation or are incomplete or have been reinterpreted in a neo-liberal direction (in contrast to the original intentions of SADC regionalism)? What are the responsibilities of South Africa in fostering regional integration? The South African government, for its part, must take full cognisance of the long established unequal relations within SACU (Southern African Customs Union) and in its ongoing engagements with the BLNS (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland). In the context of EPAs, South Africa must recognise that it had seriously failed to take fully into account the interests of the BLNS when it signed its free trade agreement with the EU (the TDCA or Trade, Development and Cooperation Agreement). Social and political forces within South Africa and the rest of SACU must insist forcefully, given the problematic origins of the TDCA and the changes that have since taken place in South Africa that the agreement has to be revised in ways that are conducive to the weaker members of SACU. This is also necessary for South Africa itself. The mid-term review of the TDCA, the EPA-induced crisis in SACU and the potential collapse of SACU, or at least severe complications within its functioning, all demand that the entire TDCA be radically reviewed, revised, reduced or removed altogether. Any of these options raise many political and legal issues. But the last option, the rescinding of the TDCA, would only be economically feasible for South Africa in the context of a much greater diversification of its trade and other economic and political relations, especially with other countries of the South. This re-orientation by South Africa would also require a consolidated and fully developmental SADC, in the first instance, and an integrated, developing, stronger and more independent African Union in the long run. A further challenge to South Africa is to recognise the dangers of the growing penetration by South African companies into the rest of Africa and the deepening imbalances between the SADC member states. In this context too, it must be noted by all the SADC governments that the rapidly emerging neo-liberal (re)orientation and "market"-serving programmes within SADC will be powerfully reinforced by the EPAs if they go ahead. This neo-liberal combination will put at risk the original aims and purpose and the very survival of SADC as a potential development community. What lies ahead for the region? Why would South Africa take on these responsibilities? If we have a global crisis -- financial, food, climate or a water crisis -- we have to have regional strategies. Even more so, (since) the energy and water crises are going to force these countries into cooperative and coordinated strategies. Although South Africa is much stronger in terms of industrial capacity, finance etcetera, it is very vulnerable because it is 70 percent water deficient. It cannot grow all its own food. If there are further shifts in rain patterns and water supply, it will have to seek food from neighbouring countries. It will have a fundamental systemic motivation to have regional agreements. Therefore, it is a strategic imperative that we move towards development-based regional integration. Our neighbours would then negotiate for better terms and treatment from South Africa in return for what South Africa needs from them. There is also a moral imperative. Our neighbouring countries were structured deliberately to be underdeveloped in order to provide cheap labour for South Africa's mines and industries and to be a destination for our exports. Historically 500,000 miners have come to South Africa from the neighbouring countries each year. Furthermore, these countries have also been plunged into terrible crises because of their deliberate struggles against apartheid on our behalf. For example, hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans died in the process. At a political and moral level, the South African people owe it to our neighbours to promote real regional integration and cooperation that can support them in their development efforts. Copyright © 2008 Inter Press Service

Dot Keet is a research Associate of the Alternative Information and Development Center, Cape town, South Africa, and Fellow of the Transnational Institute. She is also an active member of the Africa Trade Network, representing numerous civil society organisations across the continent. Aileen Kwa is a Research Associate with Focus on the Global South.