The African continental free trade area

By Phumzile Mahlangu

It is time for us to give credence to the hopes and aspirations of our founding fathers for Africa to unite and to use its resources for the benefit of her people. The AfCFTA is a high ambition trade agreement, which aims to progressively bring together all 55 member states of the African Union, covering a market of more than 1.3 billion people. 

It is encouraging that more than 61 years since our leaders met in Ethiopia in 1963 to put their vision into action progress is being made to realise trading amongst ourselves. For instance, last month South Africa became the first among the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) countries to start trading as part of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

As Chairperson of the African Union, President Ramaphosa oversaw the launch of the African
Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is currently the largest free trade area in the world. 

South Africa’s made its first shipment to other African nations and we expect many more products to be exported in the next few months. Export to AfCFTA countries already account for nearly a quarter of South Africa’s global exports. We call on South African companies to take advantage of the market opportunities offered by the AfCFTA by exporting their goods to the continental market. The benefits extend beyond our country’s producers, with expected increase in traffic through our ports, our airports and our land-based border posts.

AfCFTA was adopted in 2018 and it is one of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063. It aims to fast track intra-African trade and has the potential to grow our economies as well as improve the lives of people across the continent. It is expected to lead to diversification of exports, acceleration of growth and an increase in investment as well as employment opportunities for South Africans and the rest of the continent. 

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) creates a single continental market for goods and services in Africa. It further aims to reduce trading problems such as different regulations from one African country to another. However, for it to succeed, Africa countries will have to prioritise building infrastructure in particular road transport as it is the most preferred mode of transport for the movement of goods, services and passengers.

As government we are pleased that Southern African governments have already started to ramp up investments to expand land transport infrastructure. In 2012, these SADC countries adopted the Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan that prioritises the development of road, rail and ports.
The plan identifies 72 road projects comprising new builds, upgrades or maintenance projects and includes the Dar es Salaam-Chalinze toll road, the Kazungula Bridge, the Beitbridge-Chirundu road upgrade. The plan is being implemented over three five-year intervals and has led to the completion of some of the infrastructure in the region. 

The Kazungula Bridge for instance was completed and opened in 2021. The bridge runs through the North-South corridor and is jointly owned by the Botswana and Zambian governments. The opening of the bridge reduced pressure on the Beitbridge border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe and transit times between these countries.
In South Africa, our government is working together with the private sector to improve our ports and rail network and restore them to world-class standards. In his 2024 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa provided an update on what is being done to stabilise Transnet and reform the logistics system.

He said: “We have set out a clear roadmap to stabilise the performance of Transnet and reform our logistics system.  Working closely with business and labour, government has established dedicated teams to turn around five strategic corridors that transport goods for export purposes.”

This free trade agreement is a step in the right direction and moves us closer to realisation of the vision of our founding fathers. South Africa will continue to take advantage of this opportunity to unlock economic growth and fulfil the aspirations of our forebears of a united, integrated and prosperous continent.

Phumzile Mahlangu is Assistant Director: Communication Resource  Centre at GCIS

African trade

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