South Africa’s balancing act in the AU

South Africa will have to prove its mettle on the regional and global stage as it assumes the chairship of the African Union (AU) and a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council for another year. The 2020 AU theme ‘Silencing the guns, creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development’ will be a chance for the country to showcase its own efforts – past and present – in mediation and promoting reconciliation in Africa.

In his address this week to South African ambassadors serving on the continent, President Cyril Ramaphosa was clear: “The three main priorities for South Africa’s chairship – economic integration, women’s empowerment and good governance – must be underpinned by the promotion of a peaceful and secure Africa.” 

Yet those nostalgic for the time when South Africa played a leadership role and did indeed silence the guns, at least for a while, in countries such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), might be disappointed. The reality is that the country does not have the means or the political clout to make a massive impact on a continent beleaguered by political, economic, security and development challenges. In the early 2000s when former president Thabo Mbeki launched his peacemaking initiatives on the continent, South Africa had the military capacity to deploy peacekeepers in fairly large numbers, but these have now dwindled to the small contingent serving in the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade in Eastern DRC. South Africa’s reputation on the continent has also been eroded by seemingly inexplicable foreign policy decisions such as deploying soldiers in the Central African Republic in 2013 by then-president Jacob Zuma.

South African officials will be spread thin on the ground and the minister of international relations and cooperation Naledi Pandor will have her work cut out for her, with the concurrent mandates in New York and Addis Ababa. 

Still, there are opportunities unique to this position. For example, strengthening relations between the AU and the UN has been a longstanding priority for South Africa, who is serving on the Security Council for the third time since its democratic dispensation in 1994. 

Getting the UN to finance AU-led peace operations has long been an issue of contestation and is increasingly difficult in the current climate of global skepticism of multilateral institutions, and with President Donald Trump’s United States still bent on drastically reducing peacekeeping operations.  But South Africa is likely to continue pushing for UN financial support for peacekeeping in Africa and will support the notion of AU-initiatives towards self-funding these operations, such as the AU Peace Fund.   

Ramaphosa identified Libya and South Sudan as areas of focus for the year, where South Africa is already involved in seeking resolutions to the ongoing conflict in both countries. Pandor also spoke at length about the security threat in northern Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique and said South Africans should be “concerned about indications of an Islamic State presence in Mozambique”. 

Clearly these are extremely difficult issues to solve and most of them will need cooperation with international bodies such as the UN. 

Arguably, the current security challenges in Africa are more often than not intertwined with international terrorism, multinationals coveting scarce resources, military deployment by international powers and general meddling in the continent’s affairs – factors that make it difficult for the AU to implement its ‘African solutions’. It is also important to keep in mind that the AU is an intergovernmental institution that has no real power to impose itself on governments of sovereign states that violate principles of the organisation. The best it can do is to exclude governments that come to power through unconstitutional means, as it has done many times. The issue of ‘subsidiarity’ that calls for regions to handle conflicts before escalating them to AU level also sometimes leaves the regional organisation with its hands tied.

Governance will naturally also be on the agenda in 2020. As chair of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), South Africa can help to position it as a truly conflict-prevention and early warning tool. This means that the APRM country reports could ideally be used by South Africa to put certain governance issues on the agenda of, for example, the AU Peace and Security Council or the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights. But for this to happen, Ramaphosa will have to make some unpopular decisions and hold countries to account for poor governance. This is unlikely to happen given that South Africa has its back against the wall due to the prevailing problem of xenophobia in the country. It is unlikely to wag the finger at other states’ deficiencies – including the violation of human rights – and risk alienating the rest of the continent. 

“At the top of our agenda as chair must be the deepening of economic integration,” Ramaphosa told the heads of mission, as he detailed the importance of implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) this year. This may seem like a departure from the AU theme, but he and Pandor have acknowledged that the underlying rationale behind the theme of Silencing the Guns is that “there cannot be development without peace”. 

South Africa’s domestic priorities such as “economic transformation, job creation and the consolidation of the social wage through reliable and quality basic services depend on a politically stable and and economically growing Africa”, Ramaphosa noted. 

As one of the most industrialised economies and one of the biggest investors on the continent, South Africa has a lot to gain from removing trade barriers. Negotiations to overcome some of the outstanding issues in the AfCFTA agreement are well on their way but it is not an easy task to reassure small economies of South Africa’s goodwill in this regard. Smaller economies need to know that they will not suffer unduly and that larger ones won’t intrude and annihilate nascent industries in their countries. In exchange for opening up their markets even further, smaller member states are asking for the implementation of the Protocol on free Movement of Persons in Africa  which was signed in March 2018 around the same time as the AfCFTA. This is of course a much bigger ask and states like South Africa, who are facing challenges of xenophobia and migration, are far from ready to implement the Protocol. 

It will be critical for Ramaphosa to show some tangible progress on the theme of the year beyond just summits and meetings. Getting a high-level dialogue going in Zimbabwe and mediating peace in Libya are some tangibles that could be achieved in the coming months. He has also placed the continent’s other huge challenges such as socio-economic inequality, gender-based violence and climate change on his agenda as chair.

However, reality dictates that South Africa cannot tackle every issue it has flagged. Ramaphosa must seek a balance between longer-term socio-economic development and fixing the immediate crises that will show Africans that the AU, under South Africa’s leadership, can make a tangible difference to their lives. 

(Main image: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa –  Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.