PRESIDENT Cyril Ramaphosa has urged South Africans to welcome and embrace foreign nationals from the continent as the country moves to be part of a pact to enable free movement of people and encourage trade and investment after signing a protocol at the African Union summit in Kigali, Rwanda.
South Africa and 43 other countries on Wednesday signed a declaration on establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which will create the world's largest free trade zone after 40 years of negotiations.
Ramaphosa has already tasked minister of international relations Lindiwe Sisulu to work with her Rwanda counterpart to lift visa restrictions for Rwandan nationals wishing to travel to South Africa.
Speaking before his departure, Ramaphosa said this did not mean South African nationals would lose job opportunities to foreign nationals, pointing out that they came to the country for various reasons including studying, business, trade and tourism.
"This free-trade agreement that we've got should mean people from other countries should come and do business with South Africa. We should welcome that because when they come, they come with money. They bring in dollars to invest in South Africa. Some of them come to learn in South Africa," Ramaphosa said.
"Movement of people does not only mean that people are moving into South Africa to take our people's jobs. Also it needs to be seen in another dimension that we are sending people here [in Rwanda] to do business, to trade and to learn. The easy movement of people across borders should never be seen in a negative sense."
AfCFTA is aimed at deepening African economic integration, promoting agricultural development, food security, industrialisation and structural economic transformation through single-air continental transport market with free movement of persons, capital, goods and services. The agreement is said to have the potential to create a unified market of U.S. $1.2 billion and a combined GDP of over U.S. $3.5 trillion.
Ramaphosa said his government welcomed the "historic moment" that had been dreamt of by the founding fathers of the AU, saying South Africa was totally pledging itself to opening up trade by signing the declaration.
"We are part of this process of opening up Africa for trade. All that is holding us back from signing the actual agreement is our own consultation process," he said.
"So we are really going the clean-up process of ensuring that everybody is on board. As far as we are concerned as South Africa we are very much part of it. The agreement therefore is very much alive, it's not dead in the water. We as South Africa want free trade in Africa because we are an important player on the African continent."