Southern Africa is ripe for regional economic integration. That surprising development became evident last month during the fifth African Economic Forum, held in Namibia and attended by six heads of state, numerous finance ministers, and 800 leaders, economists, and businessmen.
Deputy President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, echoed by President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and President Festus Mogwae of Botswana, made the dream of a southern African common market a realizable short-term objective. For the first time since the 1950s, a large portion of Africa finally seems poised to lower its intra-African trade barriers and create the kind of greater economic aggregation of nations that should help all the countries of southern Africa, even the poorest ones, grow sustainably. Nothing is more deserving of United States support.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) - from the northern borders of Tanzania and the new Congo, to the southern tip of South Africa, as well as Mauritius and the Seychelles - has a combined gross domestic product of about $172 million and total population of 183 million. The potential is enormous, for Africa and the world. Until now there has been more focus on the impossibility of harmonizing the economic - and political - aspirations of the smaller countries that orbit the rich giant of South Africa. Mr. Mbeki acknowledged for the first time that South Africa understood that no regional economic grouping could succeed without the wealthiest members assisting the poorest with income transfers. But the key issue for now is the lowering of tight barriers that inhibit intra-regional trade and prevent poor countries from exporting to the richer ones.
South African businessmen and union leaders oppose lowering barriers to the import of textiles and agricultural commodities from their weaker neighbors. Products from Zimbabwe are kept out of South Africa. Zimbabwe in turn raises barriers to imports from its neighbors. To reduce poverty, these obstacles have to go. South African capital will have to be allowed to flow into the poorer countries, sometimes submerging local endeavors. Only with a larger market will southern Africa attract investment and grow more prosperous.
Realizing a free-trade zone leading toward a common market will mean limiting sovereignty, as in Europe. The power of South Africa's formidable trade unions, which seek continued protectionism, will have to be reduced. Although Mbeki promised to lead South Africa toward regional economic integration much more rapidly than anyone previously predicted, he will not be confirmed as Nelson Mandela's presidential successor until an election at the end of 1999. Until then, he will be unable to batter the trade unions.
Among the other realities in the region, President Robert Mugabe's erratic authoritarian socialist rule of Zimbabwe is out of step. His interventionist economic notions are regarded as anachronistic.
Then there's President Laurent Kabila's Congo. Exactly how SADC is going to absorb a large and potentially rich country that lacks a responsive government, effective property rights, and a national economic regime is not known. Mbeki is prepared to nurture the difficult orphan, however, and to lean on Mr. Kabila.
Southern Africa wisely wants to follow the examples of South America's Mercosur and the European Union. Led by South Africa, and assisted by the US and Europe, it can.
* Robert I. Rotberg is coordinator of the Southern African Program at the Harvard Institute for International Development, in Cambridge, Mass.