The absence of both President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa from this week’s African Union summit will further diminish South Africa’s standing on the continent, some analysts believe.
On Tuesday the government confirmed that Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane would lead South Africa’s delegation to the African Union summit on 3 and 4 July in Addis Ababa.
It did not explain what is believed will be an unprecedented absence of the South African head of state from an AU summit, but the reason is clearly that the summit clashes with the ANC’s crucial policy conference starting this Friday and ending on 5 July.
The debate over policy is expected to be a proxy for the bitter power contest between presidential candidates Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma – strongly backed by her former husband Jacob Zuma – and Cyril Ramaphosa. Dlamini-Zuma, ironically, returned to South Africa from Addis Ababa in January after serving just one term as AU Commission chair.
Her decision not to run for a second term as the top AU official, as is customary, confirmed the suspicions of many other continental governments that Zuma had only sent her to Addis Ababa in 2012 to keep her out of local politics until his second term expired.
Many were resentful that South Africa fought so hard to get her into the Addis Ababa hotseat – denying her predecessor Jean Ping a second term – only to relinquish the position after just one term.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a consultant and AU analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said that Zuma and Ramaphosa’s decision to stay at home, though understandable in the light of the importance of the ANC policy conference, could be damaging for South Africa’s image on the continent.
This was especially so because of a new rule recently adopted by the AU, which insists that countries be represented by either the head of state, prime minister or deputy president at the bi-annual summits.
She added that Dlamini-Zuma’s successor as AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, had reminded member states of this again during an address in Kigali on 7 May this year and a note was sent to all countries explaining this new rule.
“We’ve informed heads of state of the level of participation required,” she quoted Mahamat as saying during a discussion about the new AU reforms.
It is not clear if Pretoria asked the AU for a special dispensation not to send its president or deputy to the summit. Mahamat’s spokesperson had not responded to a request for comment by Tuesday night.
Louw-Vaudran also suggested, in an article in ISS Today, that since Dlamini-Zuma stepped down from the AU Commission chair, South Africa had shied away from occupying other important AU posts. She said it was thereby ceding power to other players on the continent, such as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the current AU chairperson President Alpha Condé of Guinea.
However, ISS chairperson Jakkie Cilliers took a more pragmatic view, saying the absence of the two top leaders from the summit was “just reality. It’s possibly bad planning to have scheduled the ANC policy conference over those dates, but now that those dates overlap, domestic priorities rule and for me that’s probably understandable.
“Zuma has to stay home to quell a potential revolt and Ramaphosa will refuse to go since that will show disrespect to his own power base and chances.”
A seasoned regional diplomat agreed, saying, “It is quite understandable that neither Zuma nor Ramaphosa will attend the summit, considering the cutthroat political season at home.” DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Freedom Day celebrations held in Manguzi, uMhlabuyalingana in KwaZulu-Natal under the theme “The year of OR Tambo: Together deepening democracy and building safer and crime free communities, 27 April 2017. (Photo: GCIS)