Fielding candidates for the AU top jobs could signal a new commitment by South Africa

Among the peculiarities of the new selection process for the top management at the African Union Commission (AUC) is the fact that four of the five major contributors to the AU’s budget – Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco and South Africa – have shown an unusual interest in the elections.

Chief among them is South Africa, which has presented four candidates: two for the deputy chairperson of the AUC, one for the new Department of Education Science Technology and Innovation; and one for the strategic Political Affairs, Peace and Security Department. Algeria is a major contributor to the AU’s budget but does not have candidates in the final selection.

Regardless of the real chances of Pretoria’s candidates and despite the fact that there is no guarantee that any candidate will win, this move by South Africa is unprecedented. It particularly contrasts with 2017, when Pretoria did not field a candidate either to replace outgoing chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or for any other positions in the AUC.

Regardless of the real chances of Pretoria’s candidates, this move by South Africa is unprecedented

While it is not clear at this point whether this renewed interest in the AUC is part of a broader foreign policy strategy, some analysts have in the past pointed to the contradiction between Pretoria’s claim to leadership in Africa and its relative lack of representation in top positions in African organisations.

Whatever the outcome of the current elections, a regional power like South Africa is expected not only to assert itself in the AU but also to mobilise a wide range of resources – including its best cadres at various levels of African organisations.

The appointment of a South African national – former official in the South African Department of Trade and Industry Wamkele Mene – as the first executive secretary of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is another indication of South Africa’s recent willingness to take on more responsibility in Africa.

During its active tenure at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 2019 and 2020 as non-permanent member, South Africa also championed important continental issues such as synergy between African members on the UNSC, AU–UN relations and UN financing for AU peacekeeping operations.

How can South Africa’s renewed interest in the AUC be explained? Is it part of a broader foreign policy strategy, or just the effect of chairing the AU in 2020 and noticing the opportunities and gaps in the AUC? Has South Africa learnt some lessons from Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure as the AUC chair?

AU’s growing political significance

Recently, one of the main geopolitical changes in Africa has been the increasing political significance of the AU. Known for its role as the architect of norms and values officially shared by member states, the AU and its various organs have slowly been growing into the role of a committed facilitator and mediator of continental processes (governance, peace and security, trade, etc.).

While the AU still falls short in terms of its implementation capacity, it is increasingly being recognised as an important political actor on the continent and globally. The growing number of foreign representations in Addis Ababa is a reflection of this.

While the AU still falls short in terms of its implementation capacity, it is increasingly being recognised as an important political actor

AU organs like the Permanent Representatives’ Committee and the Peace and Security Council have become places where African diplomacy is exerted and common African positions negotiated.

Beyond national representation in Addis Ababa, a substantial presence at the AU headquarters is another way for African countries to ensure additional visibility.

A Ramaphosa effect?

In his role as the rotating chairperson of the AU Assembly, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has earned him widespread recognition.

Throughout his tenure as AU chair, Ramaphosa has benefited from the diplomatic capacity and reach of South Africa. This was visible in the successful transfer to digital platforms and the regular convening of meetings of the AU Bureau of heads of state, representing the AU’s five regions.

Importantly, the South African presidency has also been able to launch the African facilitation of negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This follows an unsuccessful attempt by the United States to mediate between two of Africa’s most populous countries.

While the outcome of these negotiations is still unclear, the initiative can be considered as an important milestone towards the peaceful resolution of a highly sensitive and complex crisis.

Inconsistent engagement with the AU

Since its admission to the Organization of African Unity after the end of apartheid, South Africa has had varying degrees of engagement with the continental organisation. It played a key role in the creation of the AU during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. Yet South African diplomats and cadres were a somewhat rare commodity in Addis Ababa during those years.

More generally, South Africa has not sent substantial numbers of staff to serve in African multilateral organisations, including the AU. It was only in 2012, when the Zuma administration nominated Dlamini-Zuma for the AUC chair, that South Africa finally started deploying high-level staff to the AU.

As the first female AUC chair, Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure will be remembered for more than just Agenda 2063, which she championed. She also improved the gender balance of the organisation by, among others, appointing the first female special envoys.

However, her tenure was also marred by accusations that she only paid partial attention to the AUC because of her frequent visits to South Africa. It was also noted that her cabinet was mostly composed of SADC nationals.

A profusion of candidates: design or accident?

South Africa has presented two male candidates for the position of deputy chairperson. However, according to the new regulations, if the chairperson is male, this portfolio must be allocated to a woman.

For the first time in its history the AUC elections were discussed in the country’s Parliament, where MPs criticised the lack of female candidates from South Africa. This either indicates a lack of communication between the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and cabinet, or raises questions about South Africa’s strategy.

It should be noted that the current AUC chair still needs to be elected with a two-thirds majority, despite his running unopposed. Should Moussa Faki Mahamat not reach that threshold in February, the election would have to be postponed. This would have a considerable impact on the workings of the AU, which would be paralysed for at least six months.

Whatever the reason, this raises the broader question of South Africa’s plans for the AU. How does South Africa see the continental organisation evolving in the near future? What role does it intend to play? While the deployment of staff could be an indicator, the most important guide should be a clearly articulated strategy that gives meaning to the ambitious Agenda 2063.

How does South Africa see the continental organisation evolving in the near future?

Despite signs of overstretch in the last months of South Africa’s chairmanship of the AU, Ramaphosa’s presidency can be seen as a success. His major achievements were related to the management of crises (COVID-19 and the GERD negotiations) and less on more structural issues.

To avoid being a firefighter rather than an architect, South Africa should reconnect with Mbeki’s tradition of shaping the discourse on African matters and trying to build coalitions with countries beyond Pretoria’s traditional allies. South African leadership is expected and sometimes even demanded in places like the Great Lakes, for example, where the country has made important, multi-dimensional contributions to peace consolidation in the past.

As it stands, South Africa’s achievements in various AU roles point to the indispensable role of  regional leaders in continental efforts. The continent, therefore, stands to benefit if its major powers can  clearly articulate a consistent vision and strategy to move the AU forward.

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