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Africa month: As the continent celebrates its political liberation, it must also accelerate economic integration

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OPINION: Africa’s economic, cultural, tourism vibrancy and competitiveness, depends on countries on the continent prioritising building new infrastructure particularly roads, rail, dams, communications towers and power stations.

Picture: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK – Construction cranes are seen over a multi store complex being build in Johannesburg, South Africa.

By Thoko Modise

Every year in the month of May, more than 1.3 billion Africans across 55 countries celebrate Africa Day. This annual commemoration marks the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to bring about an end to colonialism and apartheid in Africa.

In South Africa, this annual commemoration occupies a big part in our hearts because we were the last country to be liberated on the continent. No words can express our gratitude to the African statesmen like President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and other African leaders, who played a prominent role in uniting the continent to fight the domination of African people by external powers.

When the OAU was established exactly 60 years ago, more than two-thirds of the continent had gained independence, mostly from imperial European states. At the meeting that founded OAU in 1963, the initial goal was to assist Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to attain independence.

The historical mission of decolonising the continent was completed on 27 April 1994 when South Africa held its first democratic elections, marking the end of apartheid and European domination in Africa.

It was truly a befitting moment when the responsibility of disbanding the OAU on 9 July 2002 and replacing it with African Union (AU) was given to OAU’s last chairman, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, the last African country to be liberated.

For much of the 60 years that Africa Day has been commemorated, African leaders have devoted their energies to promoting political and cultural integration across the continent. A little-known fact is that the charter that was signed in 1963 at the inception of the OAU expressly called on African countries to co-operate to raise the living standards of African citizens across the length and breadth of our continent.

The task of transforming African countries from back-water, rural hinterlands into wealthy industrial powerhouses has been difficult to achieve because African countries were hollowed out by imperial powers, which mainly extracted resources and never developed the continent.

Indeed, there was very little investment in infrastructure development, healthcare, education, and poverty reduction programmes to benefit local populations.

Without heightened investment in infrastructure and economic integration, it was impossible to phantom Africans accumulating wealth and enjoying higher welfare standards comparable to those enjoyed by citizens of western Europe and northern America.

Accounting firm Deloitte has estimated that Africa requires about $93 billion annually over the next decade to overhaul the continent’s infrastructure with two-thirds of this amount going to building new infrastructure and the balance allocated for maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Africa’s economic, cultural, tourism vibrancy and competitiveness, depends on countries on the continent prioritising building new infrastructure particularly roads, rail, dams, communications towers and power stations.

The founders of OAU had a dream of a united and prosperous Africa bound together by common political identity and robust infra-Africa trade. Many detractors believed this dream was not possible until African leaders created the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2018 following a deal brokered by the AU, which resulted in the birth of the world’s largest free trade area spanning 1.3 billion people and combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $3.4 trillion.

Economic projects suggest Africa is going to grow exponentially over the next two decades as AfCFTA breaks down trade barriers, develops regional value chains, and creates new trade routes across the continent.

African leaders are alive to the trade and investment opportunities that AfCFTA is presenting to their countries, hence they are calling for more involvement of the private sector in its implementation over the next 10 years.

The establishment of AfCFTA is by no means representing a highest form of full economic integration resembling the European Union (EU). However, it is a stepping-stone towards creating an EU-type common market with a single currency, free movement of goods, and people.

The structure of the continent’s economy requires a huge revamp as is still characterised by small, fragmented markets, 42 currencies, and dependence on exporting of unprocessed minerals.

In addition, there is also a wide range of impediments that must be addressed such as low private sector participation, lack of access to affordable credit, excessive red tape, poor infrastructure, which all conspire to increase the cost of doing business in our beloved continent.

These obstacles are not insurmountable as many countries have begun to aggressively de-regulate and restructure their economies, including South Africa, to attract investment and attain higher growth rates.

These steps bode well for the continent’s long-term future and may long continue.

Modise is the General-Manager in Communications at Brand South Africa.