The second South Africa-Zimbabwe Bi-National Commission (BNC) meeting took place on 3 October 2017. The commission is the second in an annual series of meetings between the two countries chaired by South African president Jacob Zuma and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. The BNC allows the governments of South Africa and Zimbabwe to address regional issues which may affect them and to focus on strengthening areas of bilateral co-operation. Central to that closer co-operation were discussions of the “one-stop border-post” project that aims to increase trade between the two countries by expediting border crossing procedures.
The latest BNC produced five agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoU) to promote co-operation in information and communications technology, energy, the environment and conservation, and sports and recreation. The promotion of trade and economic development was a major topic for discussion. For both countries, cross-border trade is important for maintaining – if not growing – their economies. For Zimbabwe, it is vital. The BNC has, therefore, aimed to improve economic co-operation and to strengthen the partnership between the two economies. Large quantities of fuel, consumer goods and energy are imported by Zimbabwe from South Africa. Zimbabwe is one of the top five trading partners of South Africa on the continent and trade continues to grow. In 2016, exports from South Africa to Zimbabwe amounted to approximately 29.3 billion rand ($2.75 billion). To aid future trade, the countries must work to remove such obstacles as inefficiencies at the border crossing. Promoting private sector investment will also be beneficial and the two governments have agreed to partner with the private sector to develop more industry and increase the ability of business to stimulate much-needed investment flows. That will support the 120 South African companies which conduct business in Zimbabwe.
Currently, terrestrial trade between the two countries is channelled through the Beit Bridge border crossing, which is also the busiest border post on the continent. The site lacks efficiency, however, due to overcrowding, dysfunctional scanning systems and poor cargo tracking and container depot processes. Those inefficiencies have created delays and hindered trade. The two countries agreed to address issues with the site in 2009, but little has been done. The inefficiencies at Beit Bridge were a central issue at this year’s BNC and it was agreed to implement a one-stop border-post (OSBP) project. Processing is currently carried out at two facilities on the site, but the OSBP – once implemented – aims to change that by easing congestion, reducing delays and allowing for the easier flow of goods across the border. To co-ordinate the project, a joint technical committee has been formed which will develop the necessary legal frameworks. The project will be a step forwards in increasing trade and a test of how well the two neighbours can co-operate. Although feedback on the project’s progress is to be given at next year’s BNC, Mugabe has pushed to fast-track the project and to have it finished within a year. If the OSBP project is successful at Beit Bridge, the South African authorities may look to implement it at other border crossings.
Co-operation between South Africa and Zimbabwe exists across a wide range of areas. The two countries have between them forty existing agreements and MoUs that cover taxation, justice, defence, transport, water, science and technology, health, immigration, labour and tourism. South Africa and Zimbabwe continue to promote political, economic and social co-operation. Although the countries have faced issues in the past, current relations are strong, Zuma and Mugabe appear to have a good personal rapport and neither country is likely to act to provoke the other. Cash-strapped Zimbabwe relies heavily on South Africa for goods imports and energy supplies and therefore lacks political leverage, while South Africa, with a weakened but still vastly stronger economy, enjoys the monetary rewards and political support from the relationship. Further co-operation on a wide range of issues is likely, and Mugabe, largely friendless on the international stage, has pushed to elevate the BNC from an annual event to a continuous platform for engagement and co-operation with Pretoria.