Time to pull the plug on SACU?

The formula that determines how the customs and excise revenues gathered in the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) are distributed among its members looks, to a layperson, dauntingly complex. But this formula has had an enormous impact on the economic and even political development of the five SACU member states; South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland.

The impact has arguably been greatest on South Africa’s neighbours, the four smaller member states that are often referred to simply as the BLNS. But it has also had an impact on South Africa.

SACU was founded in 1910, the year the Union of South Africa came into existence, and is the oldest surviving customs union in the world. Originally it distributed customs revenue from the common external trade tariffs in proportion to each country’s trade..

This apparent generosity almost certainly masked a political intention to keep its neighbours dependent

So, South Africa received nearly 99%. Surprisingly, South Africa’s apartheid government radically revised the revenue-sharing formula (RSF) in 1969 after Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland had become independent. This gave each of the BLS members first 142% and later 177% of their revenue dues, calculated on both external and intra-SACU imports, with South Africa receiving only what was left. But this apparent economic generosity from Pretoria almost certainly masked a political intention to keep its neighbours dependent and in its fold, as the rest of the world was increasingly turning against it.

However, as Roman Grynberg and Masedi Motswapong of the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis pointed out in their paper, SACU Revenue Sharing Formula: The History of An Equation, the 1969 formula became increasingly unviable for South Africa as it had been de-linked from the common revenue pool. This threatened to burden Pretoria with a commitment to pay out to the BLS states more than the total amount in the pool.

The African National Congress government saw the dangers when it took office in 1994 and soon began negotiations with the BLNS states for a new formula. That was agreed in 2002 and implemented in 2004. But although the 2002 RSF eliminated the risk that the payouts to the BLNS might exceed the whole revenue pool, it actually increased the share of the pool accruing to the BLNS at the expense of South Africa – as Grynberg and Motswapong also observe.

The new RSF was based on three separate components. The first divided the customs revenue pool proportional to each member state’s share of intra-SACU imports. Because of the growing imports of the BLNS states from the ever-mightier South Africa, this meant most of the common customs pool went to the BLNS. This proportion is increasing – but never to more than the entire pool.

The second component of the RSF divided 85% of the pool of excise duties (the taxes on domestic production) in direct proportion to the share of the gross domestic product (GDP) of each of the SACU members. The remaining 15% of the excise duties became a development component, distributed in inverse proportion to the GDP per capita of each member. So the poorest members of SACU would receive a disproportionate share of this element of the excise.

Over the years the BLNS countries have grown increasingly dependent on the SACU revenue. It now funds 50% of Swaziland’s entire government revenue, 44% of Lesotho’s, 35% of Namibia’s and 30% of Botswana’s. Because of its own growing fiscal constraints, Pretoria launched a review of the formula in 2010. But this review got bogged down over major disagreements and seems to have gone nowhere.

In his budget speech this month, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene raised the issue again, calling for a ‘revised and improved revenue-sharing arrangement,’ and Parliament’s two finance committees examined it. National Treasury spokesperson Jabulani Sikhakhane told ISS Today that while efforts to reform the SACU formula are ongoing, ‘progress has unfortunately been arduously slow.’

A total overhaul would make explicit that SACU is a disguised South African development project

Budget documents show that in 2014-15, South Africa paid out some R51.7 billion to the BNLS countries out of a total estimated revenue pool of R80 billion, and was projected to pay out R51 billion again in 2015-16. Kyle Mandy, a PricewaterhouseCoopers technical tax expert, told Parliament’s two finance committees last week that South Africa was paying about R30 billion a year more than it would otherwise under the SACU RSF. He said South Africa contributed about 97% of the customs revenue pool and received only about 17% of it.

The R51.7 billion payout to the BLNS this year represents about 5% of South Africa’s total of R979 billion in tax revenue, a substantial ‘subsidisation’ that was no longer affordable at a time of growing fiscal constraint, which had forced Nene to increase taxes, Mandy said.

He noted that the SACU revenue had allowed all but Namibia of the BLNS countries to set their taxes below South Africa’s. ‘This means South Africa is subsidising the BLS countries to compete with South Africa for investment with their more attractive taxes,’ he said in an interview.

‘This is not sustainable for anyone. It locks the BLNS countries into dependency on South Africa. They have neglected their own fiscal systems. But the moment that the revenue fluctuates, [as Nene’s budget predicted it would in 2016-17, dropping to R36.5 million], it puts them in a difficult position. When South Africa sneezes, they catch flu.’  

But what to do about this? Some, like political analyst Mzukisi Qobo, have called for a total overhaul of the SACU agreement, which would make explicit that SACU is a disguised South African development project. The development aid would become transparent and could be tied to conditions such as democratic government.

Pretoria’s decision had turned SACU into a ‘dead man walking’

That is on the face of it an attractive solution, offering the opportunity of leveraging democracy in Swaziland, in particular, by placing a conditional foot on its lifeline of SACU revenues. But Grynberg warns that a sudden withdrawal of the vital direct budgetary support which SACU customs and excise revenues provides, could implode both Swaziland and Lesotho and provoke economic crises in Namibia and even Botswana.

He also points out that the RSF is not plain charity by South Africa to its smaller neighbours. The formula has essentially just compensated them for the cost-raising and polarising effects of SACU – that the BLNS countries have generally had to pay more for imported goods over the years than they would have otherwise done because of import tariffs designed to protect South African industries; and because the duty-free trade within SACU has tended to attract investment to larger South Africa.

Meanwhile, South Africa has benefitted from a ready market for its much larger manufacturing machine. Grynberg wrote in a more recent article for the Botswana journal, Mmegi, that the South African government was thinking of pulling out of SACU because it couldn’t get its way in the negotiations to revise the RSF; and because the 2005 Southern African Development Community Free Trade Agreement now gave it duty-free access to the BLNS countries without the need to pay the re-distributive SACU customs revenues.

It was only President Jacob Zuma who was preventing this, because he didn’t want to go down in history ‘as the man who crippled the Namibian and Botswana economies and created two more “Zimbabwes” – i.e. Swaziland and Lesotho – right on the country’s border.’ Pretoria’s decision had turned SACU into a ‘dead man walking, just waiting for someone to pull the switch and end its life.’  

Grynberg strongly advised the BLNS to prevent this by accepting that the political reality that underpinned the RSF of SACU no longer existed. He says that it should be transformed into a purely development community without the formula, but with mutually agreed spending on development – mainly in the BLNS. He suggested, though, that this radical change would take at least 10 to 15 years to phase in.

All very well. But isn’t that what SADC is supposed to be already? Which suggests that it might be time to take the 105-year-old dead man off life support.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa