Among the issues on her to do list will be monitoring the situation in Madagascar following the elections there and the efforts to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She will no doubt be pleased that Zimbabwe has been taken off SADC watch since the July elections were deemed ‘free and credible’. This makes the security situations demanding attention relatively few compared to the term of her predecessor, notwithstanding recent events in Mozambique and rumblings in Zambia.
We can hope that this will give Dr Tax and her team the time to focus on reviewing and reviving the regional economic integration agenda in SADC. The free trade area has been in place for five years now but there is still some way to go before its full implementation is achieved and attempts to stall or bend the rules are on-going by some member states. The removal of tariffs is comparatively easy when considering what is involved to improve the functioning of border posts, harmonise standards and remove non-tariff barriers.
SADC already has quite a number of legal and policy documents as well as mechanisms in place to deal with freeing up the movement of goods, capital and people in the region. The first recommendation to Dr Tax is to focus on implementation of existing commitments and programmes. This could include the SADC Regional Development Fund and the Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan as well as the removal of non-tariff barriers in the region. This should be a priority rather than the negotiation of fresh legal instruments or the deepening of integration through a customs union.
The second recommendation offered to the new Executive Secretary of SADC is to improve engagement with the private sector on regional issues.
There have been a number of attempts made in the past to involve business in SADC processes but none of these have been sustained and the result is an ad hoc series of interactions. The responsibility for this situation does not rest solely with the SADC Secretariat. Organised business in the region is not particularly strong and has often been fractured by the pursuit of individual or sectoral interests. Member state governments have also shown reluctance to allow business to participate in regional processes with only a few countries regularly including private sector representatives in their SADC delegations.
The result is that SADC has fallen behind other African regional economic communities in the area of public-private dialogue. Dr Tax should be encouraged to remedy this situation where she can.
For example, the SADC Secretariat should prioritise meeting with the business community in the region on a regular basis to get a better understanding of the constraints experienced on a daily basis by traders and investors. In research undertaken by the South African Institute of International Affairs with the support of GIZ, firms have shown that they are extremely willing to engage on regional issues if the space is created.
To maintain their interest it is important that SADC respond and resolve some of the issues of priority concern for business. This doesn’t have to be done by the Secretariat alone. Private sector organisations and firms are keen to continue to improving the business environment in SADC through dialogue as well as in practical ways such as training customs officials and donating equipment.
The benefits of public-private dialogue at a regional level are significant. It results in a more practical and nuanced focus to policies and procedures adopted by member states as the views of the private sector will be reflected. It enables governments and business to speak with one voice on common objectives. It may even facilitate the creation of regional private sector associations and strengthen the Business Council of Southern Africa. Most importantly it can contribute to increasing integration and intra-regional trade in SADC with a view to supporting economic development of the region.
The third and final recommendation for the Executive Secretary is to enhance the transparency and understanding of regional debates in SADC. This could include redesigning the website and providing electronic access to the numerous resources the SADC Secretariat has such as tariff schedules of member states. Here it is worth noting the recent work of the SADC Research Hub which has started to engage more systematically with think tanks and to distribute SADC related research through a newsletter service. It would be good to see this initiative continued and expanded.
Transparency of regional processes and discussions will not only improve accountability and hopefully compliance in SADC; if more people know about the work of SADC and understand how it can impact on them then we will be a step closer to achieving true integration of our region. This after all is the overarching goal of Dr Tax as she takes on the role of Executive Secretary. She deserves our full support in this regard.