SA must sign AU’s free movement protocol to unleash our own potential

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Business Day on 29 March 2024

Agenda 2063 is the AU’s plan to achieve shared prosperity, unity, integration and a continent of free citizens. While a great deal of progress has been made in enshrining the freedom to trade and protecting investments via the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) treaty and its protocols, the same is not true for the freedom to move freely and establish yourself anywhere on the continent.

In fact, there is a legal instrument in the form of the protocol on free movement (part of the larger Abuja treaty of 1991) that has only been ratified by four countries, with a threshold of 15 for the protocol to come into force. The four countries that have ratified the protocol are Mali, Niger, Sao Tome & Principe and Rwanda.

Interestingly, Rwanda is always at the forefront of these initiatives. Both the AfCFTA treaty and  the free movement protocol were introduced in 2018 when Rwanda hosted the AU summit under President Paul Kagame’s AU presidency. This could be part of Kagame’s strategy to develop Rwanda economically and help bring about a self-sufficient continent that can finally let go of the reputation of being a beggar for aid, something he has often spoken about.

Unfortunately, other African leaders are not as driven to achieve these goals. This is mostly due to their domestic politics, especially when it comes to free movement. In SA there has been a rise of the so-called “SA First” movement, mostly directed against African immigrants, who are perceived as stealing economic opportunities from South Africans.

These sentiments stem from the general tendency of South Africans to see economics as a zero-sum game. Organisations such as Operation Dudula have convinced policy-makers that opening our borders to Africa is political suicide. This is shortsighted in the extreme. While it is true that SA, as the most industrialised African country, would initially see net inward migration from the continent if the free movement protocol were to be implemented, similar to Germany’s experience as the most industrialised country in Europe, South Africans would benefit from this both in the medium and long term.

While there is a legitimate fear that our relatively generous welfare state acts as a magnet for African immigrants, this can be addressed directly by proposing an amendment to the protocol that precludes the possibility of immigrants under the protocol receiving welfare benefits such as public healthcare, public education and grants. Article 19 of the protocol requires portability of social security benefits; this should be done away with if portability imposes an obligation on the receiving state. The important thing is to give back to Africans their right to move freely on their home continent.

Free movement is a moral issue in the sense that it is unjust to prevent or make it hard for peaceful, law-abiding Africans to travel and establish themselves anywhere on the continent. This migration also benefits the receiving country, with no drawback if there is no requirement to provide welfare for immigrants. Immigrants are often the most hard-working, entrepreneurial people in any society.

In fact, a major reason the US is the largest economy and dominant world power is its initial openness to immigration. It was able to offer a home to those who had faced persecution, mostly in Europe. This is not dissimilar to Africa, where many hard-working and entrepreneurial Africans leave for greener pastures in Europe and America due to wars, rebellions, insurgencies and political persecutions.

By signing up to the free movement protocol, our economy can benefit from these people. They can help unleash the potential of the SA economy. We often speak of human capital but too many people don’t actually believe in the concept. If they did, they would realise that getting Africans who are incentivised to work hard and build businesses is as good as those people investing in our economy.

South Africans can get cheaper services or goods and more innovation like the township tuckshop model introduced to this country by Somali, Ethiopian, and Pakistani immigrants. Everyone wins as long as everything is done on a voluntary basis. This in turn allows South Africans the disposable income to either invest in other parts of the economy or consume more. This means the economy grows and more jobs are created for South Africans and everyone else.

Some economists believe opening borders for people to move freely, not just goods and services, can add an order of magnitude more to the economy than simply liberalising the trade of goods and services. This means that while AfCFTA will be great for Africa, without allowing the free movement of people the benefits will not be nearly as transformational as they might otherwise be.

The simple, common sense fact is that when brains get together they produce new and previously-unthought-of things. Allowing Africans to move across African borders freely will allow an unprecedented level of co-operation across the continent. Of course, we must stop criminals from abusing this right, but SA’s leaky border doesn’t stop criminals anyway.

With only four ratifications out of a required 15 since 2018, the free movement protocol is in danger of dying before it has had a chance. This means aspiration 2 of Agenda 2063 is also in danger. SA’s influential role in the Southern African Development Community can help prompt other member countries to sign and ratify the protocol and bring it to life, with one or two amendments of course.

This is our best chance to dismantle the colonial borders everyone keeps talking about. If the former coloniser can do it — Europe — why not Africa?


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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