Fikile Mbalula | West Africa connectivity offers new transport opportunities

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Fikile Mbalula. Photo: Gallo Images
Fikile Mbalula. Photo: Gallo Images


When President Cyril Ramaphosa undertook a state visit to West Africa with a clear objective of enhancing economic and other relations, transport was one of the sectors identified as being able to advance cooperation.

Transport is the golden thread that binds all the elements of economic cooperation and access to each other’s markets. There is no better demonstration of this yawning gap than the connectivity between West Africa and southern Africa.

Travelling via Europe from one African capital to the next is not unheard of, and is at times the only available option. This is an anomaly we are determined to address through political and economic interventions.

Ramaphosa’s state visit took place at a time when the world is reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, further compounded by the identification of a new variant that has put us at odds with western countries that did not miss a heartbeat in shutting their borders to South Africa and other countries in southern Africa.

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Our crime was to be the first to discover the Omicron variant owing to our scientific prowess in genome sequencing and our ability to detect new variants quicker. The irony of this development is that it comes precisely at a time when we are tackling connectivity issues between the two regions.

The bilateral air services agreement I signed with my counterpart in Ivory Coast emphatically underscores this point. It allows for unlimited flights on passenger and cargo services, as well as for intra-Africa fifth freedom traffic rights, which relate to rights granted by one state to another to put down and take on – in the territory of the first state – traffic coming from or destined to a third state within the African continent.

Ivory Coast occupies a special place in African aviation, as a midwife to the ground-breaking decision taken by the African ministers responsible for civil aviation to liberalise African skies when they met in its capital Yamoussoukro in November 1999.

The agreement is key to promoting trade and tourism, and to improving connectivity between South Africa and Ivory Coast, and within the continent. It will further provide the two countries with an opportunity to explore and exchange cultural relations.

The great divide we seek to bridge is not only in relation to the two regions, but also Anglophone and Francophone Africa.

In 2020, the aviation sector in Africa only accounted for 35% interregional travel, while intraregional travel accounted for 65%.

It should not elude us that transport enables tourism and trade, making the role of the sector central to economic activity. Lockdowns are the antithesis of economic growth. The aviation sector bore the brunt of the devastating impact of the pandemic and is desperate for recovery.

It is for this very reason that we took the view that when others placed us on red lists and denied our nationals entry to their countries, we kept our borders open, subject to strict measures including presentation of a valid negative Covid test taken no more than 72 hours from the time of departure.

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South Africa is committed to the implementation the Single African Air Transport Market, a flagship project of the AU’s Agenda 2063 aimed at creating a single, unified air transport market in Africa to advance the liberalisation of civil aviation. It is through this initiative that we will achieve increased connectivity and integration within the African continent.

Nigeria and Ghana equally play a strategic role in enabling connectivity between our respective regions and are important partners in ensuring the success of the African Free Trade Area.

In Ghana, I signed a memorandum of understanding with my counterpart, which covers a broad range of areas of cooperation across all modes of transport. These not only relate to government-to-government cooperation and sharing of expertise, but include actively mobilising potential investors in both countries to invest in transport projects. This extends to maximising private sector participation in projects through public-private partnership, as well as knowledge and technology transfer.

We successfully concluded these memorandums of understanding with both Ivory Coast and Ghana, while work is still ongoing to finalise a similar memorandum of understanding with Nigeria. We committed to finalising the outstanding work during the first quarter of 2022 and signing the agreement with Nigeria.

These memorandums of understanding constitute the building blocks towards closer collaboration and implementation of practical measures to make connectivity between the two regions a lived reality.

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Entities such as Airports Company SA, the Air Traffic and Navigation Service, Sanral and the Road Traffic Management Corporation will play a pivotal role in enabling this cooperation.

We have no doubt that we have much to learn from our West African counterparts and we remain ready to share our experiences in a number of areas.

Having signed these ground-breaking agreements, which will undoubtedly transform intra-African travelling between West and southern African regions, we are ready to tackle the next steps, including putting in place institutional arrangements and engendering collaboration between our respective private sectors. It is only through this collaboration that we will achieve tangible outcomes and attract investments to the transport sectors of both countries.

Mbalula is the minister of transport


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