When Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta travelled to Pretoria this week for a three-day State Visit, officials said he was going to take stock of current bilateral relations and explore other areas of “mutual interest.”
Those areas of mutual interest, it turned out, included the usual priorities: Trade, continental peace and security and health. They are the same areas of focus the two countries’ past and present leaders had attempted to address, but only succeeded in kicking the can down the road.
On this occasion, both leaders acknowledged gaps that have seen the countries trade severely unbalanced and relations mostly held back by enduring barriers.
“While relations between South Africa and Kenya are warm and constructive, it is time to elevate our ties to that of a strategic partnership,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, arguing that will improve relations on all spheres of political, economic and social ties.
“We need to consolidate those areas of cooperation that anchor our relations, explore new ones within the current state of global affairs and address challenges that will affect our people in the future.”
The South African leader acknowledged his country’s balance of trade is in his favour. Kenya sells just about Sh3 billions of goods and services to South Africa but buys as much as Sh40 billion, reflecting the imbalance.
“We have a wide range of products that will be beneficial to South Africa,” said President Kenyatta.
“We need to address the big question, and that is what is hindering trade and investments between our two countries and what is it that we need to do to increase both trade and investment,” President said.
After their bilateral talks, the two leaders agreed on practical measures to address the imbalance with Ramaphosa saying his country will ensure South Africa “becomes a ready destination for goods and services from Kenya.”
“I would like to request our respective Ministers to remove any unreasonable barriers or challenges that are stifling these efforts,” he said at the bilateral talks. After the session, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Migration Matters and the Agreement on the Return of Nationals refused Entry and Illegal Immigrants.
That may have been an improvement from the past. Since 2016 when then President Jacob Zuma made a state visit to Kenya, there had been perpetual delays on this migration issue with most Kenyan businesspeople complaining of the difficulties in securing visas. South Africa had also been accused of placing other barriers to trade, such as the insistence on Yellow fever certificates where those without had been refused entry in the past.
In 2016, Zuma suggested those restrictions had been in place because Kenya was a conduit for illegal immigrants. It was a filter, he suggested, not a discriminatory policy to lock out Kenyans.
After his visit, changes were made, such as easier diplomatic and business visas as well as transit permissions as immigration regularisation for students. A formal agreement could help eliminate the frequent barriers, however.
On Wednesday, a joint communique said they had also signed memoranda of Understanding on diplomatic consultations and training, tourism; health; transport, and bilateral air services. No timelines were given, but the two leaders said the respective line ministers must “ensure implementation of agreements and MoUs executed, and decisions taken.”
Traditionally, MoUs are seen as guidelines to negotiating a formal agreement. It means the several MoUs signed this week are not formal bilateral agreements on the specified issues, but intent to reach such an agreement once the specific issues are discussed.
This places the actual responsibility of seeing through formal agreements on the shoulders of Kenya’s next President, once elections are conducted next year in August. President Kenyatta is completing his final term in office and even if his ministers push through a deal now, the implementation will begin in the new term, assuming the new leader will be aligned to continue with the same trajectory.
For now, though, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s team may look at what changed in ties with South Africa: until 2016, they had had no MoU nor agreement to boost trade. Now they do. Both countries have signed on the Africa Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCTA) and have endorsed a trilateral arrangement between regional blocs East African Community, Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa) and Southern Africa Development Cooperation, meant to boost trade connectivity. They have both continental fight against terrorist groups and have supported local solutions for Africa’s peace bids.
With an agreement on migration, maybe the visa headache will be settled as well, but there remains a gap to be filled. South Africa had earlier expressed interest in investing in the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor.
“South Africa and Kenya ought to set an example by increasing both the volume and composition of bilateral trade as well as investing more in each other’s economies,” a joint communique said.
“The two Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the Memorandum of Understanding that was concluded in 2016 and agreed to resuscitate South Africa’s participation in the LAPSSET Project in particular with respect of berths 4 (bulk agricultural terminal) and 5 (bulk liquid fuels terminal) at Lamu Port and to explore further areas of participation,” it added.