Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, South Africa has been the largest destination country for voluntary and involuntary migrants from the SADC (Southern African Development Community) region and other parts of the African continent. The move to South Africa has been predominantly caused by attractive economic opportunities for semi-skilled labour in sectors such as construction, mining and services, political conflicts in some countries, poverty, climate change and a host of other factors. Immigrants living in South Africa (estimated to be around 2.9 million people) actively participate in economic activities, including those who are conducting informal trade between their host and home countries.

The high number of immigrants living in South Africa is also accompanied by high trade volumes in and around the southern Africa region. Recent reports of South African authorities managing cross-border trade indicate that South Africa exported 33,7 billion units of goods to neighbouring countries by road at a value of R295 billion (with 1 USD fluctuating between 17-19 South African Rands ‘R’) in 2021 whereas in 2022, South Africa exported 37,9 billion units of goods to the neighbouring countries by road at a value of R386,7 billion. The volumes of goods increased by 13% from 2021 to 2022. The highest volumes of goods exported by South Africa went to Mozambique, claiming a 58% share of South Africa’s total exports to neighbouring countries. Botswana came in second place, claiming a 20% share and was followed by the Kingdom of Eswatini with a 10% stake. South Africa’s trade with her neighbouring countries amounted to R238 billion in 2021. In 2022, South Africa’s trade with her neighbouring countries was valued at R441 billion worth of goods (R386,7 billion of exports and R54,3 billion of imports) resulting in an increase of 85,3% (R203 billion). These figures show an increasing inter-trade between South Africa and her neighbouring countries.

South Africa’s neighbouring countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Mozambique are considered key markets for both exports to, and imports from the region. Along with the formal and recorded trade with the SADC region, there is also informal cross-border trade; or, in short, ICBT. The ICBT is basically trade conducted by small, in most instances, vulnerable traders or non-state actors. Informal traders play a significant socio-economic development role in countries where they source products (creating demand and providing foreign currency) and the markets where the imported goods are sold and consumed (creating employment and satisfying consumer needs). Albeit largely informal, ICBT remains a critical (and still to be for the foreseeable future) feature of the African economies.

ICBT generates significant economic benefits which stimulates an increasing appetite for cross-border migration. The value and statistics of ICBT are limited and difficult to verify. Furthermore, data on migration in Southern Africa are very restricted. Relatively reliable and openly available data are largely on formal trade, labour migration and cross-border tourism. In most instances, cross-border data on migration flows are not publicly available, and this is attributed to challenges related to the collection and analysis of such data. The limited nature of reliable data on cross-border migration flows, compounds challenges related to an appropriate and accurate analysis of the nexus between migration and ICBT. The ICBT activities are mainly conducted through the use of private vehicles or other modes of public transport such as buses and trains wherein traders book space and pay for the transportation of their goods across international borders. Some informal traders also cross borders on foot, especially communities living near border posts.

With the coming into effect of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA) on 30 May 2019, the collection of data on ICBT is even more critical to the realisation of the strategic objectives of the intra-African continental trade agreement. One of the main objectives of the AfCFTA is to create an integrated single continental market for goods and services, underpinned by the free movement of business persons and investments. It must be highlighted that this objective, noble as it is, it doesn’t explicitly include ICBT. Therefore, the collection of reliable data on ICBTs will not only buttress evidence-based decision-making on the implementation of the AfCFTA but will also enhance understanding of ICBTs themselves and their contribution to economic growth and development of the African continent, regional economic communities (RECs) and independent countries.

The trade volumes of ICBT clearly demonstrate that, in general, trade in Africa and Southern Africa, in particular, is to a significant extent informal. ICBT volumes are estimated to be in the region of 30-40 per cent in the SADC region. International trade scholars argue that the benefits of informal cross-border trade include, but are not limited to; the provision of goods and services that are not available in the local market or selling these at a cheaper price, employment creation, increased demand for services provided by related industries such as transport and hospitality. It is important to highlight the fact that, the ICBT is largely conducted by self-employed immigrants and by micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises.

Given the direct link between ICBT and international migration, it can be concluded that the ICBTs ought to be made integral stakeholders and intended beneficiaries of the trade and migration policies. Informal economic activities, including the performances of these related activities in cross-border trade, require intentional policy interventions that regulate, regularise and facilitate the legal movement of people across international borders. Therefore, the informality of immigrant-driven trade does not necessarily warrant its neglect from the broader trade-migration policy nexus and dare I also say, one of the proven realities of international trade. Therefore, ICBTs are playing a critical role not only in relation to economic activities but also in addressing fundamental social issues such as fighting poverty and hunger (which are prioritised in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2), building bridges through people-to-people relations across neighbouring countries and contributing to the efforts aimed at boosting international interconnectivity and interdependence between countries.

Migration policies especially those dealing with immigration procedures to which visa regimes and requirements are embedded, generate numerous challenges for ICBTs. The challenges relate to issues such as limited stay visas ranging from 30 to 90 days per stay or per annum, depending on requirements such as the country of origin, type of passport and purpose of the visit to the country. ICBTs largely hold ordinary passports and generally get a 90 days visa and this is certainly not sufficient to cater for their numerous visits and movements in and out of the country. ICBTs engage in their economic activities as this is a source of their daily livelihoods, in other words, it is how they earn a living by buying and selling goods from one country for resale in their home countries.