The Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern African States (PTA) was established in 1982. The original treaty called for a gradual reduction and eventual elimination of customs duties and non-tariff barriers. The PTA moved into its next phase – the establishment of a common market with the formation of COMESA in 1995.
COMESA currently has 21 member states (Angola, Burundi, Comores, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). South Africa is not a member of COMESA and it is unlikely that the country will ever join. Botswana has also been invited to join. Lesotho and Mozambique were members of COMESA, but have subsequently left the organisation to focus their attention on the development of SADC.
The aims and objectives of COMESA are very similar to those of SADC can be summarized as:
- Attaining sustainable growth and development of the member states by promoting a more balanced and harmonious development of its production and marketing structures
- Promoting joint development in all fields of economic activity
- Co-operation in the creation of an enabling environment for foreign, cross-border and domestic investment
- Co-operation in the promotion of peace, security and stability among member states
- Co-operation in strengthening the relationship between the Common Market and the rest of the world
- Contributing towards the establishment, progress and the realisation of the objectives of the African Economic Community
In order to promote the achievement of the aims and objectives, COMESA has established a customs union that aims to abolish all tariff and non-tariff barriers among member states. This means among other things, the evolution of uniform national customs legislation and procedures and the reduction and eventual elimination of import duties and non-tariff barriers on trade among themselves. The target is set for October 2000.
Overall COMESA is a relatively efficient organisation that has gone far in liberalising trade within the region. The benefits to trade are significant. Although South Africa is not a member of COMESA and cannot therefore benefit directly from these tariff preferences, South African companies working on projects within the region would be well served to learn a little more about COMESA and suppliers within COMESA.
As the following slide shows, import duties on a random selection of building materials sourced from within COMESA for a project in COMESA are considerably lower than the duties on identical projects sourced from outside of COMESA.
One of the criticisms that is often leveled at COMESA is that it spans too wide a geographic area, incorporating too many countries of varying size and economic potential. Over the years there have been various proposals to spilt COMESA along SADC lines creating a “southern” and an “eastern” trade bloc. The argument against this has always been that the existence of South Africa in a “southern” bloc would unfairly skew the balance of trade. At the 1997 SADC summit, a report on SADC-COMESA relations expressed that “the sister organisations had amicably reached a common understanding on the need to co-exist while ensuring maximum co-ordination and harmonisation of their respective programmes of action”.