The Southern African Customs Union (SACU) is an almost invisible organisation. Yet it has arguably had a profound impact on South Africa’s economic and even political relations with its much smaller neighbours – and on those four small countries themselves. But there are also deep differences among its five members – the others are Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland (BLNS) – about what the essential nature of SACU should be.
This weekend, SACU ministers will be meeting in South Africa for a retreat to try once again to set a new strategic direction, a roadmap into the future, for this critical body.
The leaders of the member countries will meet in a summit, also in South Africa, sometime before 15 July – when South Africa’s term as SACU chairs ends – to adopt or reject this roadmap. The aim of the changes in the SACU treaty would be to turn it ‘from an arrangement of convenience held together by a redistributive revenue formula to a development integration instrument,’ South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said during a press briefing in Kasane, Botswana, last Friday.
Davies said there were still ‘lots of differences’ among SACU members, which they had been unable to resolve despite years of negotiations.
SACU was founded in 1910 – the year South Africa was also created. Since then, the common external tariff it created has functioned as an instrument for the much larger South Africa to support the much smaller BLNS economically, by re-distributing to them a disproportionate share the customs tariffs collected at the external borders. Or, depending on your point of view, to relegate them to being passive markets for South African products.
The new African National Congress government, which came to power in 1994, ‘democratised’ relations with the BLNS by creating a Council of Ministers to make decisions by consensus in a new post-apartheid SACU treaty, which came into force in 2004. But the basic deal remained the same, as Davies implicitly acknowledged in last Friday’s briefing when he said: ‘we have historically just set the tariffs on behalf of SACU … and … in return for that, provided compensation … in the revenue-sharing formula.’
The re-distributive revenue-sharing formula has been hugely important for the government revenues of the BLNS. In South Africa’s 2015-2016 budget year, for example, the total revenue pool was expected to be about R84 billion, of which the BLNS would receive R46 billion – according to Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter, Acting Deputy Director-General in South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry, in a briefing to the parliamentary portfolio committee on trade and industry last year. She added that South Africa contributes about 98% of the total pool, while BLNS receive about 55% of the proceeds.
That meant South Africa was losing – or re-distributing – about R44.3 billion in that budget year, as de facto ‘direct budgetary support’ to the BLNS, to use the language of Western development aid.
‘This is seen as “compensation” for BLNS’s lack of policy discretion to determine tariffs, and for the price-raising effects of being subjected to tariffs that primarily protect SA industry,’ Mlumbi-Peter said.
A glaring example of that dynamic is South Africa’s maintenance of import tariffs on foreign automobiles to protect its own automobile industry. That, of course, makes automobiles more expensive in the BLNS countries.
And should South Africa choose instead to grant rebates on some tariffs – for example to encourage imports of inputs into South African industrial production – this would also impact negatively on the BLNS by reducing their tariff revenues, Mlumbi-Peter suggested.
In 2011, South African President Jacob Zuma chaired a SACU summit to review these inherent disparities. It agreed on a five-point plan to change SACU’s fundamentals, including a review of the revenue-sharing formula; prioritising work on regional cross-border industrial development, including creating value chains and regional infrastructure; promoting trade facilitation measures at borders; developing SACU institutions; and strengthening cooperation in external trade negotiations.
Nonetheless, as Davies said in Kasane, ‘we haven’t really been able to reach an understanding of what does development integration in SACU mean.’ And so Zuma had just completed a tour of visits to his counterparts in the BLNS countries to discuss these plans, and the upcoming retreat and summit. Davies said Zuma had found the BLNS leaders ‘flexible’ – though regional officials suggest otherwise.
Does South Africa, as the only really industrialised nation in SACU, not have inherent and irreconcilable differences with the rest of the body? Davies acknowledges that South Africa – with about 85% of the combined population, and about 90% of the combined GDP – also has most of the industries that demand tariff protection.
Nevertheless, he added, ‘We are all committed on paper to seeing tariffs as tools of industrial development… But there is also an obvious temptation for a number of other countries to see the revenue implications as more important.’ And, he did not add, there is also a growing feeling in South Africa that it could do with that R44 billion a year or thereabouts, which it gives to the BLNS every year.
The coincidence of the signing, on 10 June, of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union (EU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the attempt to revive SACU, underscored an ironic analogy of South Africa’s and the EU’s predicaments.
With the EPA, the EU hopes to shift its relations with the SADC nations away from the traditional donor-recipient type of arrangement, to one of more equal and normal trade and industrial partners. That, essentially, is what South Africa is also hoping to achieve with its proposed reforms of SACU.
But it’s hard to see how South Africa is going to convince the BLNS to give up R44 billion a year of hard cash in hand, in exchange for the rather dubious future benefits of being absorbed into South Africa’s industrial development chains.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant