Two weeks ago, President Ramaphosa relaxed regulations within the country to level 1. This was followed by the Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi publishing a list of services that his department will offer. The South African Department of Home Affairs had effectively suspended immigration related services such as issuance of visas. However, all immigration related services have been reinstated except citizenship application. The omission of citizenship services and the almost unreasonable suspension of all immigration services until level 1 is reflective of the government’s general reluctance to immigration.
This is especially from those countries that would require a visa to enter South Africa, most of which are in the global south. However, South Africa is not alone in this regard, with countries in the global north having shown an inclination to use vaccine passports to clamp on immigration. For instance, the United Kingdom had to reverse its red listing of South Africa, after a diplomatic storm. The world is to still to witness much of these Covid-19 disguised restrictions as the pandemic subsides and people can travel.
All these restrictions, including in South Africa are depictive of the sensitivity of migration. While Covid-19 had a disruptive effect on countries economies, there is no doubt that the inadvertent benefit of the pandemic to most countries was the disease’s restriction or enablement of arbitrary restrictions on travel. However, considering that much of the world would be reverting to normalcy after high vaccination rates, attention will now focus on the systemic challenges around movement of persons. In Africa this attention will include on how the continent’s biggest trade agreements will enable the movement of persons.
There has been a lot of writing, seminars, and speeches around the coveted Continental Free Trade Area. Indeed, there is a reason to celebrate an agreement that is expected to link 1,3bn people, connecting 55 countries and a combined GDP of US$3,4 trillion. According to World Bank projections, the CFTA is projected to lift 30m people out of poverty by 2035. This is in addition to creating between 14-16 million jobs by the same period. All these economic benefits of the CFTA are what keeps African trade diplomats including the Ghana based CFTA secretariat awake. The negotiation of the CFTA has been accompanied by an unprecedented awareness drive aimed at civil society and the private sector. This is done in the spirit of inclusivity. The goal is not to exclude any key stakeholders in this continental trade and economic milestone.
However, while African countries have for the first time collaborated to dismantle some of the trade and economic barriers, most of which are a legacy of colonial partitioning of 1884, it does seem that one legacy of that fragmentation may be the CFTA’s Achilles heel. This is the enduring restriction on the movement of persons. The CFTA negotiators and African governments and states leaders seem to envisage an integrated continent with improved goods and services facilitation that excludes movement of natural persons. Such an approach would make sense in a Wakanda type of environment where everything is automated to a level of almost excluding human necessity. However, Africa lags in terms of the fourth industrial revolution. In all fairness, the CFTA was conceptualised and is being negotiated in an environment that is hostile to the movement of persons.
African leaders met in Kigali in 2018 to adopt the Agreement establishing the Continental Free Trade Area, paving way for the current negotiations. The CFTA was conceptualised in an environment that was already hostile to the idea of liberalised movement of persons. Prior to the CFTA, African countries were already in the process of negotiating the Tripartite Free Trade Area. This agreement was aimed at bringing together the three regional economic communities of SADC, COMESA and the EAC. Under the TFTA arrangement, there were negotiations of an agreement around the movement of businesspersons. However, for some reason, that include the political economy of agenda setting in the continent, the TFTA negotiations were abandoned in favour of the CFTA.
No direct provision in made in the CFTA for the movement of natural persons. Instead, this continental agreement identifies the regional economic communities as building blocks. In this regard the CFTA is premised on that whatever level of integration within the various RECs will be left as is. The RECs have been described as some sort of local governance mechanisms of the CFTA. It is to the RECs that the thorny and divisive issue of movement of natural persons has been left.
The African Union recognizes eight regional economic communities which comprise of: the Economic Community of West African States, Southern African Development Community, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, Economic Community of Central African States, Arab Maghreb Union and the East African Community. It is therefore expected that these eight RECs have or will make provision for the movement of natural persons within their jurisdictions, while the CFTA will late cater for inter-REC migration. Indeed, these RECs already have varying degrees of agreements and regulatory regimes governing the movement of people.
There are varying degrees of liberalisation of migration within the different RECs. However, the overall picture does not look good. Firstly, the agreement establishing the CFTA was conceptualised at the same time as the Protocol to the treaty establishing African Economic Community relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residency and Right of Establishment. However, the way these two treaties have evolved tells a story of African countries’ attitudes towards migration and trade. The CFTA treaty has been ratified by 38 countries while the Free Movement of Persons Protocol has had only 4 ratifications.
Research on intra continental travel has revealed that 80% of countries require visas within Africa. This is quite high compared to 0% for the European Union, 29% for South America, 27% for East Asia and 9% for North America. Different factors affect the visa regimes in various RECs depending on the political economy of those regions.
The North African region has an inordinate emphasis on security. Therefore, the restrictions around visas are informed by a need to preserve human safety and security. The SADC region on the hand has restrictions on movement of persons that are informed by the differences in economic development among member states. In the East African Community, much of the thinking around the free movement of people is influenced by high levels of internally displaced persons due to wars, ethnic tensions and lately climate change.
Of all the eight regional economic communities, the SADC has the most restrictive movement of persons regime. As indicated, this is mostly due to the region being home to economies that are in very different levels of development. The ECOWAS, in west Africa has a much more liberal migration regime with citizens being allowed to move within the region without passports but just their identity cards.
On the eastern side of the continent, the EAC has a relatively relaxed migration regime with citizens being allowed free movement through the EAC passport. However, the EAC has adopted a phased approach to free movement of people. This is aimed at catering for new members of the bloc such as South Sudan. COMESA has a relatively flexible movement of persons especially informal cross border traders.
It is important to note that all these regional economic communities, save for the IGAD have a protocol regulating free movement of people. However, most of the RECs have not ratified their protocols.
There was an expectation that the EAC and ECOWAS would have ratified the continental free movement of persons protocol to give it the necessary quotas warranting it to come to force. This would have been logical since these two regions are already integrated in terms of intra-regional migration. Their reluctance could be a pointer that the two regions are uncomfortable with the idea inter regional travel. This would be the logic that informed the negotiation of a movement of business-persons protocol within the predecessor to the CFTA, which was the TFTA. The EAC and ECOWAS attitude is in consonance with the continental approach to migration governance.
Recognising the link between migration and trade is key for Africa’s development. The CFTA seems to limit the movement of persons within the negotiations around services trade which include tourism, transport, business, financial and communications. There is no recognition of informal cross border traders within the CFTA. This is although informal cross border trade in Africa accounts for US$17.6bn per year. The sector is dominated by women making it have a much bigger impact on community development. For instance, the informal cross border trade is made up of 85% in the Great Lakes region, 80% in Malawi, 74% in Zimbabwe and about 70% in SADC. All this informal trade together with the formal aspects of trade that occupy the CFTA can only be realised if people are allowed free movement.
While the easing of Covid-19 regulations will allow Africa’s trade diplomats to criss-cross the continent negotiating the agreement in person and earning substantial per diems, it is ironic that the relaxation of Covid will re-usher the reality of intra-continental travellers’ frustration dealing with uncooperative home affairs departments and hostile ports of entry. Minister Motsoaledi’s selective list of immigration services is just a reflection of a continent not yet at peace with the idea of free movement of persons.
Azwimpheleli Langalanga, is an independent consultant and writes in his personal capacity.