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Why black Africa can't break hidden trade ties with S. Africa

By David WinderStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1983

South Africa's flourishing trade with Africa, which the black states pretend does not exist, points up the harsh realities of a continent struggling to cope with world recession, sagging agricultural production, and severe drought.

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Next month nine southern African countries will celebrate the third anniversary of a regional effort to break South Africa's stranglehold on their economies.

But South Africa's economic tentacles reach so far into the hinterland of black Africa that its economic grip has in some respects tightened rather than weakened. Certificates of origin may be falsified

''Made in South Africa'' labels may be discreetly removed in the rest of black Africa for obvious political reasons, but from Zimbabwe to Nigeria tins of canned guavas, fresh meat, piles of fresh vegetables, rolls of toilet paper, and an array of household goods make their way to the supermarket shelves from the farms and factories of South Africa. The subterfuge is sometimes achieved through double invoicing and false certificates of origin.

Despite an African ban on trade with South Africa, some 46 African countries turn to the white-ruled state at the tip of the continent for goods or services.

To spare their African customers political embarrassment, South Africa does not provide a breakdown of the individual countries with which it trades.

But figures for the continent as a whole show South Africa's trade with black Africa more than doubled between 1978 and 1980. Official trade figures published by the South African Commission of Customs and Excise establish the value of exports to Africa at $1.2 billion for the first 10 months of 1980.

To some extent Africa finds it has little choice but to trade with a country whose segregationist policies are anathema to it, but whose economic muscle cannot be ignored.

Although occupying only 4 percent of Africa's total land, South Africa accounts for 40 percent of the continent's industrial production. It is the nation with the richest mineral deposits in Africa - ranked first in the world in gold, platinum, chrome ore, manganese ore, vanadium, and fluorite reserves, and second in diamond, uranium, antimony, asbestos, and phosphate reserves. South Africa, according to its embassy in Washington, D. C., produces more steel and electricity than the rest of the continent, and boasts more than half the telephones and vehicles in Africa.

South Africa is one of the very few countries in Africa that can feed its own population. It is also the region's breadbasket, supplying roughly 36 percent of Africa's corn and 18 percent of its wheat. Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia, and Zaire are among the big importers of South African food.

But observers of the African scene say the key to South Africa's economic dominance in the area is its control of transportation - particularly ports and rail lines.

It was Cecil John Rhodes, the gold and diamond magnate with visions of a Cape to Cairo network and the man behind up the Rhodes scholarships, who said that Africa was ''railroads and the rest was fairy tales.'' The validity of that observation is underscored in South Africa's ability to keep the rest of southern Africa in an economically subordinate position through its grip on transportation. Clearinghouse of the subcontinent