Uitenhage man lands leading role in AU trade agreement structure

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Uitenhage's Wamkele Mene is the first secretary-general of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Uitenhage's Wamkele Mene is the first secretary-general of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area

Uitenhage’s Wamkele Mene this week became the first secretary-general of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement Area (AfCFTA).

Mene, from KwaNobuhle,  was elected by heads of states at the Africa Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with a two-thirds majority vote.

He received a special mention from Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday night during the president’s state of the nation address.

Ramaphosa assured Mene, who now heads the largest free trade area in the world, of the SA government’s full support.

The huge task ahead is not lost on Mene, 43, who was in Pretoria when news of his election broke.

“It is the biggest challenge that I’ve ever faced; it will be very difficult,” he said.

“The expectations are very high.

There are 55 countries in Africa and 29 of those are state parties.

“There are different levels of economic development, different language systems and political complexities.

“There are institutional weaknesses, particularly in customs authorities, and we need to start working on those,” he added.

Mene was also Pretoria’s chief negotiator during the AU’s discussions on the formulation of the AfCFTA in 2016.

His appointment was settled by voting following intense debates, after Nigeria attempted to block his appointment by putting up arguments in favour of their preferred candidate, Cecilia Akintomide, a banker from their country.

In his earlier life, Mene attended Marymount High School in Uitenhage, before changing schools and matriculating at Trinity High School.

He studied law and politics, then started his career at a US law firm based in the UK.

Following his stint abroad, he returned to SA and  worked for the department of trade & industry's international trade division.

“I was there for over 15 years working in WTO [World Trade Organisation] trade negotiations,” he said.

“I then went to Geneva where I had the function of deputy ambassador.

“After that, I came back home and became the chief negotiator for the AfCFTA in 2016, and the agreement was signed in March 2018.”

Mene said the objective of the trade area agreement was to create jobs.

“From SA’s perspective, first and foremost we wanted to create an agreement that opened new markets for SA which means we are creating new export jobs so that people can improve their lives, which would be the direct impact we’d be seeing through trade negotiations.

“The more services we’re exporting abroad; we’re creating jobs here at home.

“So it’s really an issue of economic development which we then have to translate to trade law and these are the binding trade obligations,” Mene said.

Before the fruits of the agreement area could be realised, Mene said a lot needed to happen, such as all member states informing the private sector and society of the agreement, creating roadshows and informing the public about the benefits and disadvantages of the agreement.

“The role is limited to the implementation of the agreement; it does not go beyond that.

“It is not political in terms of trade and industry.

I won’t be making policies — policy will remain with the commissioner for trade and industry,” Mene said.

He will assume office on April 1 after a swearing in ceremony in Accra, Ghana, where the AfCFTA will be headquartered.

The secretary-general is responsible for the implementation of the agreement.

“You have to assist member states to implement the agreement and to ensure market access opening.

“Second role is to assist member states to improve technical capacity, development in trade to be done from an institutional standpoint.

“There’s also a lot of awareness raising. This is the main function,” he said.

He said the task ahead was immense and he did not expect full implementation of the agreement during his term, but his role was to establish a solid foundation.

“Our role is to build a solid foundation and to ensure, when I leave office, we’ve established the necessary foundation because we’re starting this from scratch.

“I think the DTI prepared me very well,” he said.