32nd AU summit in focus – an ISS PSC Report six-part series:
South Africa’s election to chair the African Union (AU) in 2020 confirms the return of major powers on the continent to steer the organisation’s affairs. After having been led by smaller economies like Rwanda (2018), Guinea (2017) and Chad (2016), this year it’s Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and then, if the African National Congress is re-elected in May, President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The last time that South Africa held the position was in 2002. The country will be tasked with setting the AU’s agenda and hopefully launching new initiatives that drive the continent forward.
The AU Commission in Addis Ababa has in the past few years been fraught with infighting among representatives of its 55 member states, a shortage of human capital and capacity, and an apparent lack of clear direction. Former AU Commission chairperson, South African Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, tried to bring some efficiency to the bureaucracy in Addis Ababa, but she stayed only one term and wasn’t really able to change the institution.
In the past two years, however, thanks to the ambitious leadership of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, supported by AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, things have changed. The AU is now moving towards funding its own operations instead of relying on the European Union and others. The AU Commission will have fewer departments from 2021, and from this year will only hold one costly full-scale summit with all Africa’s leaders.
The organisation also now has better systems of financial accountability. South Africa has played an important role in this regard. The country’s outgoing ambassador to the AU, Ndumiso Ntshinga, led an effort by member states to ensure money was better spent.
But since Dlamini Zuma’s departure in 2017, South Africa hasn’t occupied any key posts in the AU Commission. The highest-ranking official at the AU is Sivuyile Bam, head of the AU’s peace support operations division. South African academic Eddy Maloka heads the African Peer Review Mechanism, which he has revived.
At this stage it seems clear that the continent’s economic integration, embodied in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), will continue being a priority for South Africa. At the recently concluded AU summit, Ramaphosa ratified the AfCFTA, saying it ‘opens up the opportunity for progress for the entire Africa’.
This brought the ratifications to 18, just short of the 22 needed for the AfCFTA to enter into force. This is expected to happen before July’s extraordinary summit on the AfCFTA. South Africa’s trade and industry minister Rob Davies, who was present at the signing in Addis Ababa, has expressed support for the trade bloc.
South Africa can also contribute in an area where the AU has been lacking, namely good governance and democratisation. As a bare minimum, the focus should be on ensuring free and fair elections, and freedom of speech – achievements South Africa is known for.
The Electoral Commission of South Africa has since the late 1990s done excellent work to build capacity across the continent. But this has all been mainly on a technical level. South Africa will have to risk sticking its neck out when elections are not free and fair. This was not the case during the recent flawed polls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The AU should take a strong stand against governments cutting off access to the Internet and social media at a whim. South Africa can put this on the agenda. In the DRC, the government simply shut down access as soon as vote counting started to prevent people from relaying the real results.
The same happened in Zimbabwe recently. In Chad social media is still not accessible for citizens and in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon the Internet hasn’t worked for months. Ironically, in many of these places, South African companies Vodacom and MTN are some of the biggest service providers.
A priority for ordinary Africans is the implementation of the Protocol on the Free Movement of People, adopted by the AU in January 2018. Uptake has been slow. If goods can travel thanks to the AfCFTA, why not people? Of course this is a tricky issue, especially for South Africa where the issue of xenophobia and incoming migrants is a hot potato.
Another major task for South Africa next year is the AU’s stated aim of ‘silencing the guns by 2020’. As a non-permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council for the next two years, South Africa has indicated that making peace on the continent will be one of its main priorities in New York.
Being on the Security Council and chairing the AU will be a unique opportunity for South Africa. From this vantage point, it can build greater international support for ‘silencing the guns’ and try to bridge the gap between the UN and the AU.
South Africa currently chairs the Security Council’s ad hoc working group on conflict prevention and resolution in Africa. It has vast experience in this regard. Going back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Africa made an important contribution to peace in the DRC and Burundi.
Former president Thabo Mbeki was mediator in Zimbabwe for many years, and ongoing efforts in Madagascar and Lesotho seem to be paying off. South Africa has deployed peacekeeping troops across the continent and is currently in the UN Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC.
Chairing the AU presents South Africa with significant opportunities. Preparations should start this year if the country is to lead the AU in serving the continent and its citizens more effectively than has been the case up to now.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
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