The widely acclaimed African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) was conceptualised by the African Union Commissioner for trade and industry in 2012 and subsequently adopted by forty four heads of states on 21 May, 2018. Accordingly, it entered into force on 30 May, 2019 while official trading was scheduled for 1 July, 2020. Central to this continental agreement, is the need to enhance and accelerate trade among African countries by eliminating import tariffs and duties.
The need for a people-centred approach to free trade and labor migration
While heads of states have acceded to this regional trade instrument, however, the central question would be, how about the people involved? This question is critical to our analysis which calls us to rethink a people-centred approach to free trade and labour migration. Of note is that regional trade policies do not operate in a vacuum and thus, policy makers ought to acknowledge that labour follows capital. Put differently, why is it imperative to allow free movement of goods and services while at the same time, restricting free movement of labour across the African continent?
Important to note is that this regional instrument is the Pan-African deficit framing of this regional instrument. Interestingly, the AfCFTA places emphasis on free movement of goods and services but is silent on critical aspects such as job creation and labour mobility. The assumption is that if at all, Africa is to realise the positive outcomes of this trade instrument, then it follows that the bilateral or multilateral agreements would create jobs to benefit citizens of the trading partners. Equally significant, is that respective states involved in the bilateral or multilateral trade agreements ought to also tolerate free movement of labour across sovereign borders in the spirit and letter of Pan-Africanism. The notion of Pan-Africanism is based on the belief that unity is vital to economic, social, and political progress that aims to “unify and uplift” people of African descent. Thus, the AfCFTA ought to establish a solid foundation for a sustained Pan-African movement that forges unity and solidarity against a capitalist society that subjects the working class to abject poverty and at the same time, divides Africans.
Southern African Development Community (SADC) trade and its migration dynamics
Whereas this article is framed from a broad Pan-African perspective, I will narrow it down to the southern Africa region. To be precise, the economic bloc of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region is characterised by a high wave of xenophobic tendencies, restrictive mobility of people across borders and poor social integration. In contrast, three economic blocs stand out in promoting free movement of citizens for member states. The Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) and the East African Community uphold free movement of not only goods and services but people as well. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) comprises member states from the eastern and southern African countries and is the major regional economic bloc in Africa. For some strange reasons, the key countries boasting of large economies and key hosts to migrants in the SADC region which are Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are not party to COMESA. These countries are well noted for opposing the SADC Protocol on Facilitation of the Movement of Persons which was promulgated in 1997 and signed on 18 August, 2005. Thus, it is reasonable to further narrow the conversation and pay particular attention to South Africa, which is a key destination for a large share of migrant labour in the southern African region.
South Africa bilateral trade agreements and its migration policies
South Africa has signed bilateral trade agreements with various countries in the southern African region. The country signed agreements with for example, Zimbabwe in the agriculture sector; Mozambique, in the mining industry. The bilateral agreements have facilitated visa free movement for up to 90 days between the two member states involved. Furthermore, South Africa granted amnesty to migrant miners and survivors of civil war in Mozambique. A leading scholar on migration, Fiona de Vletter, noted that Mozambique has been the main supplier of labour to South African gold mines from inception of the migrant labour to the mines until the 1970s. In 1997, Mozambican workers were offered amnesty on the grounds that they had served at least five years working on the mines in South Africa although many were not enthusiastic to acquire citizenship under the amnesty. Angolan nationals were also granted amnesty following the civil war in the country and this was all within the Pan-African spirit and of course, within the ambit of international human rights law to advance the rights of refugees.
As part of its regularisation programme, in 2010, the South African government granted amnesty to Zimbabweans in the form of the Zimbabwe Dispensation Permit (DZP). This special dispensation permit was targeted at irregular migrants living and working in South Africa. The regularisation programme was further extended to Basotho nationals in 2017. This was highly commendable given that unscrupulous employers hired undocumented migrants to exploit their labour power with impunity.
Of concern is that the special dispensation permits were granted on strict temporary conditions among them, that the beneficiaries would not qualify to apply for permanent residence as prescribed in the Immigration Act of 2022 (amended). According to this Act, one could acquire permanent residence if they are “a holder of a work visa for five years and somehow, excludes a corporate five-years permit; spouse or life partner to a South African citizen or on permanent residence or a minor under 21 years of a South African citizen or a child of a citizen. In the case of any application through a work visa, one has to produce a permanent offer of employment with a view to long-term residency” on condition that “no suitably qualified citizen or permanent residence was able to fill the position, and the application falls within the critical category” (see Section 27 of the Immigration Act and Regulation 23). Inappropriately, this is untenable for ZEP holders who have lived in the country for over ten years on a forever mutating visa. What this could mean is that the affected permit holders would be compelled to marry South African citizens as this seems the easiest alternative route to remain in the country.
The DZP was consecutively renewed twice on alternating conditions and names. In 2014, it was renewed to Zimbabwe Special Permit (ZSP) and then to Zimbabwe Exemption Permit (ZEP) in 2017. In the same year, the Lesotho Exemption Permit (LEP) was granted to irregular Basotho nationals. The ZEP was scheduled to expire on the 31st of December, 2021. Inopportunely, the ZEP was not renewed as expected but rather, the holders were advised to shift to alternative mainstream visas before 30 June 2023 (grace period). This decision by the Cabinet of South Africa has triggered a humanitarian crisis much as it raised critical questions with respect to Pan Africanism and human rights. Various human rights organisations have come together to contest the decision citing lack of consultation. The Helen Suzman Foundation, Zimbabwe Immigration Federation and Africa Amit filed three separate cases at the Pretoria High court contesting the cabinet decision not to renew the ZEP. Civil society groupings such as African Diaspora Workers Network (ADWN), Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, Global South Against Xenophobia (GSAX), Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), Southern African Women in Migration Affairs, Zimbabwe Solidarity Network (ZSN), Kopanang Afrika Against Xenophobia (KAAX) and Scalabrini Center and many others, have since then, been advocating and lobbying for renewal or possibly, reasonable timelines for applications to alternative visas.
The Importance of Free movement of People in Achieving Positive Trade outcomes and promoting equitable development in the SADC region
On the occasion of the commemoration of the 2023 Africa Day, we would like to remind African Union heads of states about the Pan-African commitments they signed up for in 1963 at Addis Ababa. While we appreciate free trade across the continent, it is also important to allow free movement of people. Lessons could be borrowed from the ECOWAS, COMESA and the East African Community to facilitate free movement of people across borders. With regards to the ZEP quagmire, it is important to highlight that Zimbabwe is the third largest trading partner to South Africa in the SADC region and located on number twelve globally with an estimated $3.2 billion revenue annually. If at all the free trade is to realise positive results, the point of departure would be to embrace Zimbabwean workers and their families who are already living and working in South Africa. Significantly, is to ensure equitable foreign direct investment among the SADC countries to mitigate huge flows of labour into South Africa, for in economic terms, labour follows capital.
Dr. Janet Munakamwe is a visiting senior lecturer at Wits Mining Institute. She is also the Chairperson of the African Diaspora Workers Network, an associate of the African Centre for Migration and Society and a member of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ). She writes in her personal capacity.