JOHANNESBURG — On a sunny day earlier this month, dozens of South African trucks stood halted at the border with Zimbabwe, forbidden to pass by customs officials. Their loads of chickens, meat, and produce rotted in the heat as the line stretched for a couple of miles.
The scene at the Beit Bridge crossing was the latest salvo in a trade war brewing between the two governments. In principle, the two governments speak about regional integration and cooperation. But South Africa's lopsided trade with its smaller neighbors makes them question Pretoria's commitment to cooperation.
After years of pariah status under apartheid rule, South Africa has returned to the international fold in the two years since Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the country's first black president.
But the end of international sanctions against Pretoria have actually hurt South Africa's less-competitive neighbors like Zimbabwe, which helped Mr. Mandela's African National Congress when it was an underground liberation movement.
Zimbabwe says it is tired of being swamped by goods from South Africa, a relative economic giant. It says Mandela should put his money where his mouth is and do something to equalize trade conditions, rather than imposing punitive measures on imports from its regional trading partners.
"South Africa cherishes the notion that because it is the most developed country in the region it can use other SADC countries as a receptacle," Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said resentfully at a recent summit of the 12-member Southern African Development Community.
Zimbabwe, which has been trying to get South Africa to update the trade agreement first negotiated in 1964, retaliated at the beginning of July by unilaterally introducing a tariff structure designed to protect local industry by lowering tariffs on components and raising them on finished goods. South African truckers began to encounter problems crossing the border.
South Africa's size makes its economy too big for its neighbors to compete. For instance, Zimbabwe is South Africa's biggest trading partner in Africa and its third biggest in the world.
South African exports to the African region in 1995 amounted to $890 million, with $527 million going to Zimbabwe. But Zimbabwe exported goods worth only a fraction of that to South Africa.
South Africa has dramatically raised import duties on textiles to protect its industry from cheaper Asian imports. Zimbabwe says it should have been exempted, pointing to the crisis in its clothing industry at time when unemployment is on the rise. For instance, Zimbabwe's Cone Textiles, one of the largest plants in Africa, has closed down, with 6,000 people losing their jobs.
"This trade problem is a reflection of the continuing rivalry between South Africa and Zimbabwe," says Glenn Oosthuysen, a political analyst with the South African Institute of International Affairs. "Zimbabwe is flexing its muscles. Besides, it is in a stronger position to tackle South Africa than the other states in the region."
The case of Zimbabwe is the most dramatic, but other African leaders have also expressed concern about the trade imbalance with South Africa, including the presidents of Zambia and Botswana, Frederick Chiluba and Ketumile Masire.
South African officials deny their commitments lie more with a global economy than with creating a vibrant regional one. Ministers in Pretoria repeatedly point out that developing the rest of the region is in South Africa's interests, so migrants won't flood the country looking for work.
The government says that it realizes that the current trade regime is unfair and something has to give. It says a new future lies in a draft trade protocol, which will be reviewed by SADC leaders later this year.
BUT skeptics say that SADC's lofty aspirations to promote cooperation often lead to nothing. The group, which was formed 15 years ago by the so-called Front Line states to protect members from South African economic destabilization, now aims to further economic integration but lacks the administrative and institutional cohesion to carry out it out.
In its dispute South Africa, Zimbabwe suspended the unilateral tariffs after a week saying it had to discuss the new measures with its partners.
A bilateral South African-Zimbabwean working group, set up last month, resumed talks in Pretoria. Neither side will comment, but it is hard to imagine the issue quietly fading.