Madagascar: So close, yet so far away

Shirts, dresses and trousers are piled on tables at the end of several rows of sewing machines in the Groupe Socota factory in Antsirabe, Madagascar’s third-largest city. Many bear the labels of well-known European brands: Decathlon, Zara and Camaïeu.

Socota, Madagascar’s largest textile manufacturer, employs more than 5,000 people in this factory in the highlands, about 180km south of the capital, Antananarivo. The company produces more than 5m pieces of clothing a year, says Véronique Auger, Socota’s managing director. Half of these garments end up in European stores. The other half, and this proportion is increasing, is made for leading South African brands such as Woolworths, Truworths and Cape Union Mart, a turnover worth nearly US$2m.

“Thanks to a duty-free agreement, South Africa is a big market for us,” Auger boasts. “It has good distributors and increasing purchasing power. And it’s only a few hours from here.”

For all its appeal however, South Africa – and the African continent in general – remains a marginal trade partner of Madagascar. No African country made it into Madagascar’s top 10 export destinations in 2011, according to the Economic Development Board of Madagascar (EDBM), a government agency. Mauritius and South Africa accounted for just 12% of imports that year. “It’s amazing how much business is not done with South Africa,” Auger says.

Madagascar’s isoltion

The reasons for this isolation are multiple and complex. Madagascar is an Indian Ocean island that has evolved distinctively from the rest of the continent. It has a unique natural environment: half its birds and most of its plants exist nowhere else. The island was one of the last places on earth to be settled. Although the African mainland is only 400km away at its closest point, Madagascar’s first settlers arrived from southeast Asia about 2,000 years ago. Africans crossed the Mozambique Channel about 1,000 years later.

More recently, in the 19th century the French formally colonised Madagascar and the tiny three-island nation of Comoros to the north. France and then Britain occupied the Seychelles archipelago and neighbouring Mauritius. On the continent, the Portuguese settled in Mozambique, Madagascar’s closest continental neighbour; while the British ruled much of adjacent southern Africa: South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya.

As a result, many Malagasies feel more connected and can communicate more easily with their former colonial ruler than with Mozambique, South Africa or Tanzania. The Malagasy identity is distinctly un-African and the feeling of otherness is mutual: many Africans refer to each other as “my brother”, but they will call a Malagasy “my cousin”, explains Jean-Pierre Domenichini, a historian and member of the Académie Malgache, a public institution dedicated to the study of Malagasy history, linguistics and culture.

Madagascar has a “profound ignorance about Africa”, says Piers Pigou, southern Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a think-tank based in Brussels. “There is virtually no relationship or tangible understanding that they are part of this continent,” he adds. This isolation, however, is not unique to Madagascar. The Somalis have long been known for their haughtiness towards their neighbours and many North Africans do not feel much kinship with the continent south of the Sahara, according to Pigou.

Madagascar’s recent political and economic predicament, brought about by the 2009 coup, further soured the relationship with the continent and devastated its already-weak economy. (More than 92% of the island’s 22m people live on less than $2 a day, making it one of the world’s poorest countries, according to the World Bank.) Like many international organisations, the African Union (AU) suspended Madagascar’s membership following the coup and imposed sanctions against its perpetrators. After two years of political deadlock, the international community and the AU appointed the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 2011 to mediate the impasse.