SA fell short in key areas as Africa Union chair – ISS

Resolving conflicts, tackling gender equality, climate change, boosting commerce and championing infrastructure development were top priorities when South Africa assumed the position of chair of the African Union (AU) in February 2020.

Like for many, Pretoria’s plans for the AU were largely derailed by COVID-19, and as it’s tenure draws to a close, the ISS says President Cyril Ramaphosa fell short in key areas.

South Africa will conclude its one-year tenure as African Union (AU) chair at the continental body’s next summit in February 2021.


President Ramaphosa’s leadership and inclusive approach to handling COVID-19 on the continent have been widely acknowledged.

“Everyone is grateful that Ramaphosa was the one chairing the AU during the pandemic,” a high-ranking AU official told the ISS.

Ramaphosa appointed several committees and special envoys to deal with the health and economic fallout of the pandemic.

There were at least seven virtual meetings of the AU bureau, with each region of Africa represented.

At the most recent gathering last week, Ramaphosa launched the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team to ensure African countries have access to a future vaccine, for which around US$13 billion must be raised.

South Africa was also praised for championing Africa’s concerns about the pandemic in international forums such as the G20. One reason for the success, says Senior ISS Researcher and Project Leader Liesl Louw-Vaudran, is that combating COVID-19 is a largely uncontentious issue among African states.

Tackling the socio-economic fallout from COVID-19 also suited Ramaphosa’s focus on economic development at home and abroad, she added.

South African foreign policy generally, and its approach to the AU, has favoured development issues over security issues, notes Vaudran.

Silencing the guns?

Taking over the AU baton, Ramaphosa was quick to identify Libya and South Sudan as the two conflicts he wants to focus on during his tenure.

Ramaphosa, however, didn’t make much headway on these fronts, says the ISS.

Online platforms could have enabled leaders’ summits and public discussions on crises such as those in Libya and South Sudan – two of South Africa’s priorities – but this didn’t happen, says Vaudran.

“The South African president disappointed many by shying away from tackling governance abuses and democratic backsliding on the continent.”

Flawed polls in Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire were regarded by Ramaphosa as ‘successful’ despite huge concerns over the fairness of these processes.

He even proclaimed the election of Ivorian incumbent Alassane Ouattara as ‘a positive step towards deepening democracy,’ a label few observers would agree with, says Vaudran.

She says South Africa did little in its role as AU chair to drive action on burning issues in Southern Africa that affect the entire region – notably the socio-economic and governance crisis in Zimbabwe and violent extremism in northern Mozambique.

The AU chair has a mandate to ensure certain issues are tabled by the AU Peace and Security Council for discussion, in conjunction with the AU Commission chairperson.

“Online platforms aren’t conducive to sensitive negotiations and exerting soft pressure on leaders.”

Could have done more

At the AU level, it is the prerogative of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to have the first option to decide on what to do in these two countries. But as AU chair, Louw-Vaudran points out, South Africa could have used its mandate to make public statements to highlight issues, organise joint AU-SADC fact-finding missions or summits, or appoint special envoys to deal with these crises.

Admittedly, online platforms aren’t conducive to sensitive negotiations and exerting soft pressure on heads of state who disregard AU rules of collective behaviour. But, as Louw-Vaudran points out, COVID-19 restrictions haven’t prevented intervention elsewhere in Africa.

The AU, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations (UN) are, for example, 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’ that will be organised by South Africa, virtually, on 5 December.

“South Africa did however, make an impact on the negotiations around the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, ensuring that the AU, not the UN Security Council, leads on the mediation.”

Ramaphosa and international relations minister Naledi Pandor chaired numerous meetings on the issue and technical assistants were brought in to beef up negotiating teams from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

SA didn’t convene discussions on the crises in Libya and South Sudan – two of its Silencing the Guns priorities.

The current civil war in Ethiopia will be a setback for that process.

South Africa is yet to make a statement about the escalating crisis in the country that hosts the AU headquarters, noted Louw-Vaudran.

Pretoria’s new priorities

One of the immediate consequences of South Africa’s chairmanship is its new drive to ensure a presence in the top leadership of the AU Commission.

Pretoria has four candidates in the last round of elections for the commission, which take place at the next summit in February.

This includes two candidates for deputy chair and candidates for the Commissioner of 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 being fielded from other Southern African countries.

Louw-Vaudran says South Africa isn’t likely to get more than one position, but this will be a change from previous years and is certainly “encouraging.”

Since the four-year tenure of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the country has been largely absent from the AU headquarters.

People-centred AU

Over the longer term, South Africa’s impact should be felt in the way the AU bureau was convened.

It signalled a shift away from the regular use of the AU-troika to a more inclusive system.

Taking heads of state meetings online – which are costly and time-consuming to organise in person – could also influence the AU’s future working methods.

In the past year, civil society organisations around the continent have participated in AU events in ways they couldn’t before. This could lead to a more people-centred AU – an aspiration of Agenda 2063.

Drawing in private sector and technical experts to beef up the AU’s responses was also a hallmark of South African’s tenure as AU chair, says Louw-Vaudran.

“Whether these changes will have a lasting impact depends on how much is taken on board by the next chair, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “she said. adding that it will also depend on how the new AU Commission carries forward the values of “inclusivity and transparency.”

To ensure greater relevance for the AU however, a clearer focus on crises that affect the lives of millions of Africans will be needed, the ISS senior researcher said.