AD411: Citizens of Southern African Customs Union hold mixed views on free trade and open borders

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Ziyanda Stuurman

The Southern African Customs Union (SACU) – the oldest organization of its kind in the world, with roots dating back to 1889 – unites Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa in promoting economic development through regional coordination of trade.

A revised agreement concluded in 2002, which established an administrative secretariat with headquarters in Windhoek, Namibia (SACU, 2013), maintained its duty-free intra-SACU trade and common external tariff applicable to all goods entering from outside the union (Trade Law Centre, 2019). In addition to promoting the integration of member states in the global economy through trade and investment, SACU’s objectives include facilitating cross-border movement of goods between member states and sharing customs revenue equally from imports across the union.

All five SACU member states are also part of the 16-state Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). Thirteen of the 16 SADC member states are part of the regional economic bloc’s Free Trade Area.1 Importantly, on 1 January 2021, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will come into operation,2 opening trade in a common market of 1.4 billion Africans. All SACU member states except Botswana have ratified the AfCFTA agreement, and the customs union has put forward a common tariff order to effect membership in the AfCFTA (Fabricius, 2020).

South Africa dominates trade in the customs union and the SADC region. In intra-SACU exports amounting to $14 billion in 2018, South Africa led with 71%, followed by Namibia (13%), eSwatini (9%), Botswana (5%), and Lesotho (2%). Indeed, much of the partners’ economic trade is directly with South Africa (Chidede, 2018).

As the economies of SACU member states seek to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, governments will look to opportunities provided by free trade and regional economic activity facilitated through the customs union. How do their citizens see the union’s central concerns of regional economic integration and ease of trade and movement?

Findings from Afrobarometer surveys in the five SACU countries show that citizens hold decidedly mixed views on these questions. Attitudes toward free cross-border movement range from massive support in Lesotho to equally solid rejection in Botswana, while South Africans are more likely to ban than to welcome foreign workers. Support is high, but variable across countries, for protecting domestic businesses from foreign competition.

The member countries come closer to consensus on two issues: that it’s difficult to cross international borders and that foreign traders should be allowed to do business to ensure a good selection of low-cost consumer goods.