This Saturday, SADC, the Southern African Development Community, is expected to formally launch a free trade area. Reports say it could result in more than 80 percent of regional trade being exempt from tariffs. However, some say the 14-nation SADC bloc lacks the infrastructure needed to take full advantage of the agreement.

VOA reporter Delia Robertson is following the story. From Johannesburg, she spoke to English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the free trade area, FTA.

"I think the idea is to facilitate the development of the various economies within the region and to facilitate the movement of goods within the region," she says.

Rich nations sometimes negotiate trade deals with individual countries, thus bypassing regional trade blocks. But Robertson says that would not be the case with this FTA.

"It (FTA) does give countries?more clout. I know that South African talks with the United States on a free trade agreement broke down over issues of things like farm subsidies and so on. And these are issues that are extremely important to developing countries because with those subsidies in place, also those in the European countries, it becomes almost impossible for developing nations to compete."

South Africa's Trade and Industry Minister Mandisi Mpahlwa says that the lack of infrastructure in the region is a "major barrier to regional integration and development." Robertson explains, "It's a number of things really. If you look at things like rail network, if you look at the road infrastructure and things of that nature, the levels of sophistication in those kinds of infrastructure varies from country to country. And in order to make this work at a very efficient level, the infrastructures in all the countries are going to have to be pretty much on a par."

The idea of a free trade area among SADC nations was first broached in 1996. Robertson says, "It's been on the plate for a long time. However, there have been a number of reasons behind the delay. I think one of them has been the infrastructure. Others have been the ability of individual countries to implement the tariffs that are agreed to, basically reducing tariffs. And there are still some countries struggling with that."