SACU in danger of collapse

August 22, 2013 — Leave a comment
Rob Davies Frustrated with lack of progress (Business Day)

Rob Davies Frustrated with lack of progress (Business Day)

Trade & industry minister Rob Davies did not mince his words when he briefed parliament late last month on the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu), the world’s oldest. The union was formed in 1910 and comprises SA, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Exasperated, Davies complained to MPs that SA’s partners were hardly moving in the direction of harmonising trade and industrial policies. He said if this did not happen soon, the viability of Sacu itself might be called into question.

Sacu was initially formed as a colonial-era instrument to control the flow of goods into and out of the then British colonies, an arrangement that was retained with a new agreement in 1969. In essence, SA collects customs and excise revenue on behalf of all four countries and distributes 98% of all this money to the three other members as a form of aid, retaining only 2% that should accrue to itself. It is a formula that has both worked and been fraught with difficulties over the past century.

The agreement was modified with a more distributive formula in 2002 which came into effect into 2004. Under the new agreement the most vulnerable countries, Swaziland and Lesotho, would get a larger share of the excise portion.

The Sacu distributions are also the instrument through which Swaziland was to get R2,4bn in assistance from SA in 2011. Under that agreement SA would have advanced the landlocked kingdom the money from its future Sacu distributions, but it came with fiscal and technical conditions from SA.

In January 2013, Swazi finance minister Majozi Sithole said the loan arrangement was “not working out”. He complained about additional conditions set by SA before the first tranche of R800m could be paid to Swaziland.

The kingdom’s financial woes arose mainly from reduced customs and excise collections in 2010 which reflected reduced trade to and from the region. With up to 60% of Swaziland’s national budget dependent on Sacu funds, the reduction from a total pool of R27bn to just over R17bn left Swaziland cash strapped.

Though he didn’t explicitly say so in his briefing to parliament, Davies’ frustration with the Sacu arrangement was palpable. He took particular issue with the Sacu payments merely serving as a guaranteed source of revenue for the treasuries of Sacu member states. “There are no cross-border development initiatives out of the revenue collected when there are opportunities for the members to invest in joint projects,” he told parliament.

Sacu has other problems. While the 2002 agreement calls for harmonised trade and industrial policies, it also makes provision for the countries to have different fiscal and other regimes. As a consequence Sacu members’ corporate and personal income tax rates are different. This means some members realise lower internal tax revenues than they otherwise could, increasing dependency on the Sacu distributions.

A sense of entitlement has also crept into the arrangement. In a case that generally escaped media attention, in 2009 the other members asked for an international tribunal to seek arbitration on what they believed to be “short” payments from SA. The tribunal convened in the supreme court of Namibia in Windhoek.

The matters in dispute were resolved with the signing of the latest agreement in 2009, but the fundamental complaint demonstrated both the entitlement and the vulnerability of the most dependent members.

At the time SA was expected to make four quarterly distributions which were based on an estimate of revenues collected. As often happened, there was an overestimation which resulted in a payment surplus of just over R2bn, which SA deducted from future payments. This precipitated a dispute which, given the vulnerability of Swaziland and Lesotho, was almost inevitable as their entire fiscal planning for that year had been premised on the inaccurate Sacu estimates.

SA’s counsel in the hearing, Michael Kuper, argued that the arrangement was so inefficient that it forced SA to sometimes look for alternative sources of funding just to fulfil the Sacu revenue-sharing formula.

Officials of the department of trade & industry and national treasury have for some time been unhappy about the disruptive nature of the formula, given the volatility of customs revenue. Davies alluded to this in parliament, using the wild fluctuations in revenue before, during and after the global financial crisis.

Now Davies wants the union to shape up or make a decision on its future. He told parliament that Sacu had to live up to the outcomes of its second summit, held in 2011, where member states undertook to work on cross-border industrial development, development of Sacu institutions, unified engagement in trade negotiations and a review of the revenue-sharing arrangements.

As if to emphasise its historical and present inertia, Davies said that not much work had advanced in this regard – such as the formation of national tariff bodies, a Sacu tariff board, common antitrust regulations and co-operation in agriculture.

“Some members have proposed that the Sacu tariff board be formed even if the states’ national tariff boards have not been formalised yet,” he said, in an indication that some of the members do not have the technical wherewithal to install the necessary institutions.

Lesotho and Swaziland in particular are hampered by structural economic difficulties, including low prospects for meaningful economic growth and reliance on external aid. A recent IMF report on Lesotho complimented the new government on its fiscal discipline and recommended further aid. It also noted new measures to improve supervision over the financial and other sectors.

As Africa’s last remaining absolute monarchy, known for its profligate spending on the comforts of its king, Swaziland remains a political hot potato which has increased pressure on the SA government to attach conditions to any assistance given. Though written in diplomatic language, the 2011 IMF report on Swaziland also listed a number of areas that needed strengthening.

It recommended the cutting of public-sector wages to ease fiscal pressures, a decision that brought the kingdom to the brink of instability, precipitating the appeal to SA for help. MPs raised the Swaziland loan issue with Davies, demonstrating the internal and regional political difficulties of the arrangement.

While SA remains determined to assert its voice over its junior partners in Sacu, it still has to tread carefully lest it be seen as a bully. Providing some cover have been the conditions set by the IMF before Swaziland can receive further assistance. Some of these common conditions include the protection of the peg between the Swazi ilangeni and the rand, the implementation of a fiscal adjustment roadmap and a prioritisation of social spending over the reported excesses of King Mswati III.

Early this month Australian newspapers reported the arrival of several of King Mswati’s queens and their aides in Australia on an apparent shopping trip. It is such extravagance that has put both SA and the kingdom in a difficult position – the former in its internal political environment and the latter through the loss of credibility with international development finance institutions.

It now appears that SA is choosing the route of common economic development over the aid-like structure of the Sacu payments. It remains to be seen whether the partners will be in a position to make good on Davies’ intentions or keep talking as the member states have been doing for over a decade. Source: Financial Mail

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