The drive towards SADC trade liberalisation is a goal that is emphasised in most documents of the SADC Secretariat, including the protocol on trade and the regional indicative strategic development plan (RISDP). This trade liberalisation aims to deepen regional integration through increased intra-trade between SADC member states, which was to be facilitated by the removal of trade barriers. Up to so far, the only barriers that have noticeably been reduced are import tariffs. At the same time individual member states are required to meet the growing challenges of global and regional competitiveness. The trade profile of an average SADC member country is characterised by high reliance on few products for trade revenue, which also contribute enormously to the value of total trade, and also has most prospects of industrial development. Therefore, the need for competitiveness is dependent upon the ability to protect the very same sectors that are being liberalised.
The initial steps of trade liberalisation in the region involved reduction of tariffs under the implementation of the protocol on trade, however the expected response from trade was low. It is a well known fact that there exist other weaknesses in these economies such lack of productive capacities to respond to trade incentives and infrastructural constraints which restrain potential trade. This study examines the extent to which trade protection under regional integration processes of developing countries affects the least developing members of the bloc. The static comparative tariff analysis method of relative tariff ratio is applied to determine the degree of protection between members of SADC. The results show that the least developing members of the bloc grant more access to the developing members, and they also face the most restrictive protection in the counterpart markets. Furthermore, the potential for the least developing members to build up their industrial capacity is negatively affected by deeper integration as they rely on trade instruments.