Regional Integration in Africa: Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It

2013-11-14 14:06

The annual African Economic Conference wrapped up recently with a call for increased intra-regional cooperation, particularly in Southern Africa. Whilst this is certainly an excellent goal for the leaders of these countries to aim for, their attempts are likely to be hindered by the underlying sentiment of distrust that is still widely evident across South Africa.

The concept of a united Africa has been a shared goal of the majority of the continent’s nations since colonialism began to wind down over 50 years ago. Political leaders have frequently propounded the potential benefits of this integration which would be felt not only politically, but also on economic and cultural levels.

The potential for accelerated economic growth is substantial, one only has to look at Europe’s example (the last 5 years notwithstanding) to understand how ease-of-trade and free travel between nations works to boost the included economies so that the sum of the parts combined is much greater than that of them divided. Initiatives such as the SADC have gone some way to organising regional integration, but they haven’t gone far enough, geographically or legislatively.

Given how seemingly attractive an arrangement it is, why has it yet to be fully realised? The answer is obviously incredibly complex, but two key elements can be drawn out of it. The first is the state of the individual economies within Africa, the second is the cultural difficulties presented by many African’s attitude towards other nations. South Africa works as an excellent example of these two problems and how they interact to create such substantial boundaries to the governments of Africa.

Whilst the South African economy is considered one of the most promising in the world, alongside those of Russia and China, it still faces substantial difficulties. Unemployment is currently sitting just under 25%, having dropped just 6% in 10 years according to Stats SA. GDP per capita is also 7% lower than the World Bank’s global average. A focus on growing a skilled middle class and the manufacturing sector is having the desired effect, but it will take many years to have a substantial impact on the actual financial landscape of South Africa.

The problem, from an integration perspective, occurs when the suggestion of freedom to travel and work in any participating country is brought up. The question being asked by many South Africans is, if there aren’t enough jobs for the South African population as it is, why encourage what jobs there are to be taken by foreigners? If South Africa’s economy faces problems, consider Zimbabwe where over 80% of the population lives under the poverty line and would thus potentially be willing to work for a lower wage than the average South African. It isn’t hard to see why the unemployed across Africa would be wary of such a change.

The recent rioting in Cape Town was an acute example of South African’s who feel disenfranchised taking out their frustrations on working foreigners. This lashing out is entirely misplaced as the people were attacked were hard-working individuals who were meaningfully and sustainably contributing to society.

Conversely, governments, universities and industrial leaders across the continent argue that regional integration is in fact the best way to resolve the economic difficulties in Africa within an attractive time-frame. The substantial natural resources of Africa as well as its enviable geographical position mean that there is a huge amount of untapped potential for the continent, potential that journals such as the African Development Review believe can be realised more quickly through working and trading within the continent. Over the last few decades Africa has focused on exporting its products and resources elsewhere which has worked reasonably well for some countries. However, by trading with one another, African nations can ensure that both the product and the funds stay within the continent.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Left alone, Africa will certainly become prosperous and the quality of life of its people will increase. However, it will be many years before countries like South Africa improve to such a degree that unemployment is no longer a problem. The organisation of some kind of economic area that allowed products, capital and people to move freely between nations would surely hasten this transformation, but would it be allowed to happen? At the last count, 24 African countries were in some degree of civil war, opening the borders could add substantial fire to these flames.

Africa as a whole, and South Africa as a country, find themselves in an almost ironclad catch-22. There is, however, a way out of it. Africa cannot afford to give up on regional integration; it just needs to go into it carefully. South Africa and Namibia are a good example of two countries that could be easily and holistically integrated, their currencies are already matched, but Zimbabwe or Somalia offers an entirely different challenge, one that I don’t think anybody has the stomach for.

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