As AU chairperson South Africa’s leadership has fallen short in key areas

South Africa will end its one-year term as chair of the African Union (AU) at the next AU summit in February 2021. As for many, his plans for the AU included the silence of the guns, the financial inclusion of women and the promotion of infrastructure development. , was largely derailed by COVID-19.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership and inclusive approach to dealing with COVID-19 on the continent is widely acknowledged. “Everyone is grateful that Ramaphosa chaired the AU during the pandemic,” a senior AU official told ISS Today.

Ramaphosa has appointed several committees and special envoys to deal with the health and economic downturn of the pandemic. There were at least seven virtual meetings of the AU bureau, with each region in Africa. At the most recent meeting last week, Ramaphosa launched the Vaccine Vaccination Task Force for Africa to ensure that African countries have access to a future vaccine, for which approximately $ 13 billion must be raised.

South Africa has also been praised for advocating Africa’s concerns about the pandemic in international forums such as the G20. One reason for the success is that combating COVID-19 is a largely inconsiderate issue among African states.

Addressing the socio-economic downturn of COVID-19 also fits in with Ramaphosa’s focus on economic development abroad. South Africa’s foreign policy in general and its approach to the AU have favored development issues in favor of security issues.

Ramaphosa has not made much progress with the theme of the AU’s 2020, Silencing the Guns: creating favorable conditions for the development of Africa. Online platforms could enable leadership conferences and public discussions on crises such as those in Libya and South Sudan – two of South Africa’s priorities – but this did not happen. The South African president has disappointed many by shying away from tackling government abuse and democratic decline on the continent.

Incorrect polls in Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire are considered ‘successful’ by Ramaphosa, despite major concerns about the fairness of these processes. He even proclaimed the election of the Ivory Coast’s current Alassane Ouattara as ‘a positive step towards the deepening of democracy’, a label with which few observers agree.

South Africa has done little as chair of the AU to take action on burning issues in Southern Africa that affect the entire region – especially the socio-economic and governmental crisis in Zimbabwe and violent extremism in northern Mozambique. The AU chairperson has a mandate to ensure that certain issues are tabled by the Peace and Security Council, in collaboration with the chairperson of the AU commission.

At AU level, it is the privilege of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to have the first option to decide what to do in these two countries. But as AU chairperson, South Africa could use its mandate to make public statements to highlight issues, organize joint AU-SADC fact-finding missions or councils, or appoint special envoys to address these crises. handle.

Admittedly, online platforms are not conducive to sensitive negotiations and the application of gentle pressure on heads of state who disregard AU rules on collective conduct. However, COVID-19 restrictions did not prevent intervention elsewhere in Africa. The AU, the Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations (UN), for example, are working together in many places in West Africa to intervene in crises – such as those in Mali and Guinea.

It remains to be seen whether the situations in Zimbabwe and Mozambique will be on the agenda of the special extraordinary summit on Silencing the Guns which will be organized by South Africa on 5 December.

South Africa did have an impact on the negotiations around the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and ensured that the AU, not the UN Security Council, led the mediation. Ramaphosa and the Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, chaired numerous meetings on the issue and technical assistants were brought in to sharpen the negotiating teams from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

The current civil war in Ethiopia will be a setback for the process. South Africa has yet to make a statement on the growing crisis in the country, which houses the AU headquarters.

One of the immediate consequences of South Africa’s chairmanship is its new quest to ensure a presence in the top leadership of the AU Commission. The country has four candidates in the last round of elections for the commission, which will take place at the next summit in February. It includes two candidates as Vice-Chair and candidates for the Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security and the Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology and Innovation.

These elections are based on regional and gender representation and strong candidates are presented from other Southern African countries. South Africa will probably not hold more than one position, but this will be a change from previous years and is certainly encouraging. Since the four-year term of office of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the country has been largely absent from AU headquarters.

Over the longer term, the impact of South Africa must be felt in the way in which the AU office is invested. This indicates a shift from the regular use of the AU troika to a more inclusive system.

Taking heads of state online – which is expensive and time-consuming to organize in person – can also affect the AU’s future working methods. In recent years, civil society organizations across the continent have participated in AU events in ways they have not been able to do before. This could lead to a more people-oriented AU – a pursuit of Agenda 2063.

The call in the private sector and technical experts to sharpen the AU’s responses was also a feature of South Africa’s tenure as chair of the AU.

Whether these changes will have a lasting impact depends on how much the next president, the Democratic Republic of Congo, takes on board. It will also depend on how the new AU Commission conveys the values ​​of inclusivity and transparency. To ensure greater relevance to the AU, a clearer focus on crises affecting the lives of millions of Africans is needed.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher and project leader, Southern Africa, ISS Pretoria


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