Economic co-operation has emerged as the key area in which South Africa and Zimbabwe need to strengthen ties for the mutual benefit of not only the two countries, but the entire region, says South African International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

Addressing the 1st Session of the Bi-National Commission (BNC) between the South Africa and Zimbabwe Harare Wednesday, she said: "Our two countries and people share the same history, geography and culture. We speak the same languages and share the same dreams, the dreams of an independent, united and prosperous neighbourhood. This is what informs our relations.

"We speak of relations of a special kind. These are the relations that were forged during the difficult period, the period when we were fighting against colonialism and apartheid."

Nkoana-Mashabane said the two countries had made concerted efforts over the years to ensure that their historical relations were transformed into mutual co-operation covering political and socio-economic spheres.

In 1995, South Africa and Zimbabwe established a Joint Commission for Co-operation (JCC), which was a mechanism designed to promote political, economic and social cooperation between the two sister republics.

The JCC facilitated a process wherein the two countries were able to sign 38 agreements and memoranda of understanding over the years. These pacts cover a wide range of areas, including transport, tourism, trade and investment, immigration, health, science, labour and taxation, among others.

Nkoana-Mashabane said the existence of this large number of legal instruments signified the depth of the sectoral co-operation between the two nations.

The countries decided to elevate bilateral cooperation last year during Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's State visit to South Africa, to the level of Heads of State through the signing of an agreement establishing a BNC.

The BNC is the highest form of a structured bilateral mechanism, whereby the two countries will meet annually at the level of Heads of State. It provides the required impetus to help governments forge a closer strategic co-operation and partnership.

"We are excited that we meet here this morning on the occasion of the first session of our important BNC. As we launch our BNC, it will be essential to identify the key areas of our co-operation," said the Minister.

"Infrastructure development to facilitate the movement of goods and services cannot be overstated. In this regard, we need to pay a particular focus on the One-Stop Border Post at Beitbridge.

"We trust that we will utilise this session to explore new areas of co-operation and most importantly, to further enhance existing ones. As we meet here today, we also are mindful of the current regional, continental and global challenges.

"Our economies are currently under pressure due to global commodity prices, fluctuating currencies, shrinking GDP growth, including natural disasters such the El Nino drought phenomenon. We therefore need to work together to alleviate the negative impact of these challenges."

On the issues of peace and security in the region and the continent, the Minister said the two states need to continue to work to play their part towards resolving these. "I hope the report of our senior officials, who have been meeting for the past two days, will begin to chart a clear path as we launch our strategic BNC," she added.