If Cyril was serious about African unity...

RW Johnson says the current approach is foolish, it would have to be done differently

The strange paternity of African Unity

The call by the recent AU Summit in Kigali, Rwanda, for an Africa-wide free trade area and a common African currency is, of course, complete foolishness. And even at the meeting the voting told the story. Of 55 African states only 44 signed the draft. The non-signers included the two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa. And when asked to sign on to the free movement of people as well as goods, only 27 states signed. One may be quite certain that none of these things is going to happen, perhaps ever, and certainly not for many, many decades.

Take currency, for example. Why is it that today Zimbabwe uses US dollars or South African Rands? Because Zimbabweans themselves refused to deal either in Zimbabwe dollars or the recent expedient of Zimbabwean bonds. In practice, in other words, ordinary Zimbabweans decided that they trusted the South African Reserve bank and the US Federal Reserve far more than they did the Zimbabwean central bank. For the same reason, all over Africa (except in such strong currency states as Botswana and Mauritius) one finds that there is a general preference for US dollars. Which South Africans would, if offered, not prefer dollars to Rands?

There is, in such debates, a general unwillingness to start from the facts. For example, one hears a lot about how African languages should be encouraged. Fine. But which are the most popular languages in Africa? English, French, Arabic, Portuguese and Swahili. Or again, which is the biggest, strongest currency in Africa? The answer, very easily, is the CFA Franc, used in no less than twelve countries. Its strength is attested by the fact that non-French states like Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau have joined the CFA zone and that although Mali tried to leave the zone to have its own currency, it speedily reversed this decision and again uses the CFA today.

Similarly, the decision by Guinea, Mauritania and Madagascar to quit the CFA zone has had such dire consequences for their currencies that no one is tempted to follow their example. (CFA, by the way, stands for Communaute Franco-Africain, although originally the C stood for Colonies.) The reason for the CFA’s solidity, of course, is that it is pegged to the Euro. Two African territories, Mayotte and Reunion, have abandoned the CFA zone and now use Euros directly. At least while the EU remains Africa’s main trade partner, this makes some sense.

At Kigali Cyril Ramaphosa showed that he is no stranger to the windy rhetorical tradition which has been responsible for so many African white elephants: “This is what Kwame Nkrumah dreamt of, what Julius Nyerere wanted to see, what Nelson Mandela wanted to see realised. It’s truly a new dawn for Africa”, he declaimed. No thought for the fact that when Nkrumah was overthrown, Ghanaians danced in the streets or that in today’s Tanzania it is common cause that Nyerere all but destroyed the economy and the country. It is to such rhetorical flourishes that we owe such still-born entities as the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, which does absolutely nothing about Africa’s widespread injustices and abuses of human rights, or the Pan-African Parliament, which almost never sits and has no power.

Africa’s leaders would like to see greater African unity and are greatly influenced by the example of the European Union. A good part of the trouble is that they think the best way to deal with such questions is to meet together and pass resolutions. The fact is, of course, that real unity would mean that they all lost their jobs and their powers of patronage, so in practice they are all as much opposed to unity as they could possibly be. But even if that were not the case, this sort of top-down approach would not be the way to go about it. Whether continental unity is either desirable or possible is, of course, open to debate but let us, for argument’s sake, accept the premise.

One might then enquire how the EU has achieved such unity as it has. The key was that it decided to copy Bismarck’s nineteenth century policy of building a customs union (the Zollverein) of German states and then to use that common market as the basis for German political unification. In the same way, the EU began simply as the European Common Market with just six members. However, three of these were in the tiny states of Benelux so really it rested on getting together just Germany, France and then Italy. (In practice once Germany and France agreed, Italy was bound to follow.) Bit by bit this community was both deepened to include the notion of political union and broadened to its present 28 members – 27 when Britain leaves, but with several smaller states still queuing up to join.

If one wanted to apply that model to Africa, where would one start? If one begins not with windy declarations but from the facts, there can only be one answer – the Southern African Customs Union. SACU, founded in 1889, is the world’s oldest customs union and also one of its most successful. It groups South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. Now headquartered in Windhoek, it includes a Council of Ministers, a Customs Union Commission, a SACU Tribunal and a SACU Tariff Board. In effect SACU already has a common currency, the Rand. If Ramaphosa is serious, this is where he would begin.

First he would need to put forward, both to the leaders of the SACU countries and to the people of SACU, a vision of how SACU could be used as the basis for greater African unity. This would have to include several elements:

1. The completion of economic union within SACU. To make this palatable there would have to be agreement to the creation of a common Community Fund which would then give regional aid to SACU’s poorer members. This would be necessary not only to achieve a degree of economic equalisation within SACU but to get buy-in from the poorer areas who would fear South African domination. This exactly mirrors the EU where regional aid to poorer countries has bought their consent and allayed their fears of domination by the Franco-German centre.

2. A gradual process of building greater political unity. This would have to be handled very carefully, starting only with regular meetings of SACU Presidents and then of their ministers of transport, energy, industry, agriculture etc to explore how they could harmonise policies and work for the common good.

3. As part of this it would be vital for SACU to commit itself formally to democratic norms and to spell out what that involves, viz. free elections, universal suffrage, freedom of speech, religion and the press, an independent judiciary and so forth. This would create an immediate problem with Swaziland. Probably the best thing to do would be to give Swaziland five years to conform or lose its SACU membership.

4. Although SACU should commit itself to the ultimate goal of the free movement of trade, capital and labour throughout the SACU area, this should NOT be put into practice until all the SACU countries have less than 10% unemployment. The point being to avoid large cross-border movements until they are likely to be more socially and politically palatable: large-scale immigration into South Africa in an era of 40% unemployment merely produces xenophobic riots.

5. SACU should declare itself ready to consider the admission of other countries to the SACU common market provided they fulfilled the necessary political and economic criteria. What this means is that, as with the EU, SACU would not consider the admission of countries ruled by dictators or military juntas and all countries would have to commit themselves to the full implementation of freedom of trade and capital movements.

This last proviso is of great importance. In the EU’s case, it was made plain that Greece, Spain and Portugal could not join until they had rid themselves of undemocratic governments and practices – and it was made plain that any reversion to military or fascist rule would result in immediate expulsion. Similarly, East European states are carefully monitored to see whether they have reduced corruption and political gangsterism before they are allowed to join. The result is a strong incentive to maintain democratic norms throughout the bloc.

In the case of SACU this requirement would mean that neither Mozambique nor Angola would be entitled to join until they considerably cleaned up their act. Up until now South Africa’s foreign policy has been based upon the solidarity of “liberation movements”. This has meant propping up murderous tyrants like Mugabe, a corrupt oligarchy like Angola and a country such as Mozambique in which journalists are regularly assassinated and where all trade and investment into the country has to flow through a handful of top Frelimo families such as the Machels, who take a hefty slice from them. That failed policy would now be replaced by a formal commitment to democracy.

The immediate practical result would be that SACU grows through the admission of (a reformed) Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, thus consolidating a democratic and Anglophone bloc. Democracy, always shaky in the last three states, would thus be seriously afforced. There is little doubt that such a development would be strongly supported by the international community, producing a considerable increase of investment and economic activity within this enlarged SACU bloc. This enhanced economic growth would, as in the case of the EU, exert a strong gravitational pull over other neighbouring states who would doubtless queue up to join SACU. Countries like Angola, Mozambique and the DRC would have to reform or be left out. In practice it might be easier to continue the expansion to include more Commonwealth countries – Mauritius, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the Seychelles.

As the SACU bloc grows its large internal market, high levels of FDI and resultant high economic growth increase its gravitational pull and there is no doubt that various “unreformed” states will attempt to gain access. It is of paramount importance that there should be no fudging of the entrance requirements in the interests of “African solidarity” for that would rob the bloc of its political and economic coherence. It is precisely this sort of fudging which has turned SADC into a meaningless body which, for example, insists on free elections in theory but in practice looks away when a Mugabe or a Santos rigs them or a Kabila dispenses with them altogether.

It would be sensible during this growth phase to insist only on a common market and democracy. Thus SACU would be a loose federal structure with continuing self-government of each country. There would be quite enough to do in harmonising common standards and practices throughout the SACU area and the example of the EU suggests that it is dangerous to attempt to move too fast by, for example, introducing a common currency. Indeed, the EU example rather cautions against creating a top-heavy bureaucracy which is not democratically responsible or a meaningless SACU parliament. In effect such structures suffer from a critical democratic deficit which has, in the end, produced a Brexit. Better, far better, just to let the 14 countries of the bloc grow together and become increasingly economically integrated.

Even to get this far would take a decade or more but at the end of that process SACU would have created Africa’s biggest trading bloc with every possibility for further expansion. It should be seen, of course, that if Ramaphosa and his successors take this road to African unity, as with the EU, unification would be seen as synonymous with greater prosperity – its greatest appeal to ordinary people. Far better this than empty declarations of an African Renaissance, built on sand and providing absolutely no benefit to anyone.

It should be realised that by taking this road South Africa would be fulfilling the destiny envisaged by its colonial founders. After all, the only other countries called South this-or-that are divided countries – Southern Ireland, South Korea, South Vietnam., South Sudan. No other country started life by saying it was only the southern part of something. The reason for that was precisely that the founders envisaged South Africa gradually developing into the United States of Southern Africa by absorbing all the countries to the north as far as Kenya. So they didn’t know where the borders would finally lie and thus deliberately left things open. And every South African prime minister from Louis Botha to Hendrik Verwoerd petitioned the British for South Africa to be allowed to absorb the three protectorates and, later, South West Africa. They were endlessly and artfully fobbed off but the ambition never went away.

Such a paternity in no way disqualifies the idea. Rather, it is a reflection of the enduring interests of the South African state, in the same way that Czarist Russia and then Stalin and now Putin have always wanted a Mediterranean naval base. In the end such ambitions are just a reflection of geography. In this way Ramaphosa and his successors could complete the work of Rhodes. After all, despite Rhodes Must Fall and other such diversions, the statue of Rhodes still stands at the Rhodes Memorial on Table Mountain. The stone hand still points northwards and instructs his successors “There is your hinterland”. The young radicals who daubed the statue with paint were, doubtless, Pan Africanists to a man. Did they but reflect they would see that this makes them the children of Rhodes, that he is their father. And thus the world turns.

R.W. Johnson