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South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

SACU, regional integration and the overlap issue in Southern Africa:
From spaghetti to cannelloni?

Peter Draper, Durrel Halleson, Philip Alves

South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

January 2007

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Regional integration in Africa has been a priority for both African governments and the donor community since the early years of independence. For these newly independent states, regionalism was regarded as a possible panacea for the twin problems of slow rates of economic growth and poverty reduction. The then Organisation of African Unity (OAU), with the help of the newly created United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), drafted the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, which aimed to establish an African Economic Community (AEC). The subsequent Abuja Treaty, signed in 1991, divided the continent into five regional areas: the north, west, south, east and centre in preparation for establishing the AEC.

Yet Africa currently has 14 regional integration groups whilst each sub-region records a minimum of two groups. Most countries belong to two or more of these regional organisations. The resulting problems of multiple and overlapping memberships constitute a ‘spaghetti bowl’ that hinders regional integration by creating a complex entanglement of political commitments and institutional requirements adding significantly to the costs of conducting intra-regional business. Africa, with its weak states and institutional capacities can afford none of these things.1 The key question therefore is whether rationalisation is on the cards in order to build viable, sensible regional economic communities (RECs), in the process converting extant ‘spaghetti’ into more digestible ‘cannelloni’?

There are existing efforts to co-ordinate and harmonise the activities of the 14 RECs, an issue reiterated in the Constitutive Act of the African Union and the 1991 Abuja Treaty. The Abuja Treaty intended to use the existing RECs as the nerve centres for building the AEC by 2028. However, with the incoherence that currently characterises RECs in Africa, and assuming that the AEC is both desirable (from an African development standpoint) and can be implemented, it was necessary to carve out an institutional framework that could help facilitate the attainment of an African common market. The search for this new institutional framework led to the first continent-wide ministerial-level conference addressing regional integration issues, held in Burkina Faso from 30–31 March  2006. The conference built on two regional consultative meetings in Accra and Lusaka between October 2005 and March 2006. One of its principal recommendations was the designation of certain RECs as building blocks for the AEC, as well as a moratorium on the recognition of new RECs.

In southern Africa, the region with the greatest number of RECs, only the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was recognised, despite the presence within it of the longest-established REC in the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). This has generated substantial existential concerns within SACU, a pathology that is compounded by the ongoing SADC process to establish a customs union. It also raises interesting questions about AU processes. Specifically, why is the oldest REC in Africa not officially recognised as a building block of the AEC, whilst the newest one, the East African Community (EAC), is? This in turn raises the awkward question of how seriously AU processes and objectives should be taken, and whether they resonate with national and regional concerns.

In light of this confusing situation and the implications it may hold for SACU, this paper examines the regional integration initiatives underpinning the various southern African RECs, and SACU’s relationship to the rationalisation of RECs in southern and eastern Africa. Part 2 sketches the institutional frameworks associated with SACU’s ‘competitor’ RECs in the region and maps the broad contours of their trade integration objectives in light of their desire to establish customs unions. Part 3 relates the mapping exercise in Part 2 to SACU’s own institutional and trade integration objectives with a view to establishing broad lines of convergence and divergence. Part 4 tries to make some sense of the regional integration dynamics from the standpoint of what SACU requires in order to advance its development agenda. We conclude that SACU should be explicitly recognised as a fast-tracking building block of southern African economic integration under a broader ‘variable geometry’ option with the EAC serving as the East African anchor, and we offer a broad framework for achieving this objective.

  1. See Economic Commission for Africa, ‘Assessing Regional Integration in Africa II: Rationalizing Regional Economic Communities’, Addis Ababa: Economic Commission for Africa, 2006. See especially chapter 3.

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