Safeguarding jobs and cheap Chinese goods flooding the market are hurdles the South African government must clear before it signs up to a pan-African free trade agreement, the country's largest trade union group told CNBC.
A free trade agreement across Africa is "great in principle," Matthew Parks, parliamentary deputy co-ordinator for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), told CNBC via telephone Tuesday. COSATU represents more than 2 million workers in South Africa.
But, "we need to see some kind of plan," he added.
Attending a summit in Kigali, Rwanda, last week, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa did not immediately sign the African Union's proposed free trade agreement, which posits a free trade area between its 55 member states. Ramaphosa instead signed the Kigali Declaration, a precursor to the deal.
"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," Ramaphosa was quoted as saying by South African broadcaster eNCA.
Forty-four African nations signed on to the free trade agreement last week, though another notable exception was Nigeria, by some metrics the continent's largest economy.
"Complete freedom of movement of people would mean that our economy would collapse," Parks said.
South Africa's economy, despite being sub-Saharan Africa's most developed, has foundered in recent years. Sluggish growth and unemployment at nearly 27 percent — though recent data has shown improving fundamentals — mean that the country could struggle to accommodate an influx of new workers.
"We already have Zimbabweans fleeing Zimbabwe, taking up low paid jobs here," Parks explained.