Significant expectations of SA as Ramaphosa becomes AU chair in 2020

Significant expectations of SA as Ramaphosa becomes AU chair in 2020
Bouts of xenophobic violence in South Africa over the last few years, mainly targeting other Africans, have tarnished South Africa’s image so badly that it will be difficult for incoming African Union chair President Cyril Ramaphosa to rally other AU members around any bold initiatives. The original photo has been altered. (Photo: Sebabatso Mosamo / Sunday Times)

Will Cyril Ramaphosa champion peace in Africa as the African Union chairperson next year? Or will Eskom blackouts and other domestic crises keep him at home?

It might have been a prophetic moment when President Cyril Ramaphosa cut short a visit to Egypt last week to come home to tackle the Eskom blackouts.

In January 2020, he assumes the chair of the African Union, with silencing the continent’s all too many blazing guns as his primary mission. In Cairo, he was meeting the AU’s current chairperson, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to discuss the handover, before joining him to address African peace and security issues at the inaugural Aswan Forum.

But Eskom’s escalation of load shedding to stage 6 compelled him to abort the mission and return to Pretoria to crack the whip at Megawatt Park and to assure his constituents there would, after all, be lights on the Christmas tree this year.

Is that how it’s going to be next year in the AU chair?

The African Union Commission chairperson and many AU members are expecting Ramaphosa to put real effort into tackling some of Africa’s most stubborn conflicts when he takes over the rotating chair for the year. Some hope he will also publicly criticise other African leaders for human rights abuses and clinging to power unconstitutionally as these abuses often spark violent conflict.

But many, perhaps more realistic experts, suspect domestic distractions including his own imperative of boosting the economy will incline him towards a much more passive role. They believe he will focus instead on trying to boost trade and investment across the continent through African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which is due to kick in from July next year.

What Ramaphosa’s priorities will be next year was the main question raised at a seminar at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria last week, which examined South Africa’s likely behaviour as chair of the Pan-African body for 2020. There are mixed expectations in Addis Ababa, seat of the AU, of what South Africa might achieve. Many AU officials and ambassadors of member states are counting on Pretoria to use its clout as a major economy and democracy to push for peace, reforms of the AU and much greater intra-African trade and investment through rapid implementation of the AfCFTA. They expect South Africa will do better than the last two chairs – Rwanda and Egypt. Both were active in the chair, which is the highest decision-making body in the AU between meetings of the assembly where heads of state and government deliberate on continental issues.

However, as senior ISS researchers, Liesl Louw-Vaudran and Mohamed Diatta have written in an ISS report; “Leading through consensus: South Africa chairs the AU”, there are also officials and diplomats in Addis Ababa who believe that the unenthusiastic performance – as they see it – of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as AU Commission chairperson between 2012 and 2017 indicates that Pretoria will not put enough effort into chairing the AU next year. They also believe that the periodic bouts of xenophobic violence in South Africa over the last few years, mainly targeting other Africans, have tarnished South Africa’s image so badly that it will be difficult for the country to rally other AU members around any bold initiatives.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame was particularly energetic as chairperson in 2018, pushing aggressively for implementation of the AfCFTA as well as for reform of the AU, including streamlining its institutions and reducing its financial dependence on external donors. “Kagame elevated the AU chair to a level not seen before,” Diatta said, adding that Kagame had fully understood the powers of the AU chair.

The AU rules and constitution give the chairperson wide room to act between meetings of the assembly, Diatta said. So, for example, the chairperson would have considerable latitude to accelerate the social and economic integration of Africa. South Africa – if it chose to – would also enjoy significant powers to advance the AU’s commitments to human rights, democracy, good governance, gender equality and intervention in the internal affairs of member states. The chairperson would have a say in any AU solution to address war, genocide, human rights violations or unconstitutional changes of government.

The AU’s constitution was also clear that the chair gives direction to the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) and its Executive Council – of foreign ministers of AU member states, Diatta said. And since the PSC itself was quite a powerful body, meeting three of four times a month and pronouncing on conflicts and crises such as those in Sudan and South Sudan, directing this body also gave the AU chair substantial powers.

But whether Ramaphosa and South Africa will choose to exercise the considerable powers that will be available is debatable. The AU’s theme for 2020 is “Silencing the Guns”. The AU’s Agenda 2063 blueprint for peace and prosperity includes the “Silencing the Guns by 2020” initiative but “by 2020” has been dropped from the slogan as the AU clearly realises that deadline is now impossible. Yet when AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat met Ramaphosa in Pretoria last month to discuss the latter’s chairing of the AU, he said he believed that Ramaphosa and South Africa would advance this goal – while also admitting that it would be unrealistic to expect peace would fall across the whole of Africa by the end of next year.

And last week, Ramaphosa said in a statement from Cairo, before meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, that the two leaders would “exchange views on continental issues relating to peace, stability, security and continental integration and development in order to advance the African Union’s Agenda 2063”.

Ramaphosa said for his chairing of the AU, he “prioritised regional and continental peace, stability, security, integration and development, which will contribute towards the African Union’s stated goals of silencing the guns by 2020.”

At the ISS seminar, however, considerable scepticism was expressed about whether Ramaphosa had the will or the resources to really make African peace his top priority as AU chairperson next year. A few experts thought it more likely that he would follow the path of less resistance by pushing for speedy implementation of the AfCFTA, given that so far as president he has heavily emphasised economic diplomacy, which is more in tune with his domestic priority to attract $100-billion in investment over five years.

Some foreign policy experts have criticised him for this narrow economic focus in foreign relations. At a recent seminar in Pretoria organised by the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Pretoria, Siphamandla Zondi of the University of Pretoria said: “A transactional policy with business will work. But a transactional foreign policy will not work.” It was not enough to have a foreign policy which merely promoted investment. South Africa also needed a geopolitical policy as the essential underpinning of economic relations with the world, he said.

At the ISS seminar, Louw-Vaudran expressed concern that Ramaphosa might have too much on his plate domestically to be able to really focus on AU business next year. And she agreed with Diatta and others, that South Africa’s reputation had been tarnished far more than most South Africans realised by the recurring outbreaks of xenophobic violence and the perception that the South African government was not doing enough to stop them. South Africa had also lost much of its reputation for good governance (because of all the recent corruption scandals and the poor performance of the economy).

She said that during the early 2000s, South Africa had had a huge commitment to Africa and had been very active in seeking peace in conflicts such as the one in Democratic Republic of Congo – where it had sent peacekeeping troops. South Africans were still active in peacemaking efforts, but these were now more non-government than government players.

Apart from Dlamini Zuma’s one term as AU Commission chairperson, South Africa had also been completely absent from the Commission. Louw-Vaudran proposed that Pretoria should now seek one of the commissioner posts for 2021.

She added that some felt that a better theme for South Africa’s chairing of the AU would be economic integration as that was closer to Ramaphosa’s own goals. But whether Pretoria liked it or not, the AU theme was instead Silencing the Guns. She suggested that South Africa might be helped in pursuing this theme by the fact that it would still be on the UN Security Council next year.

She said she had heard that South Africa wanted to launch fresh initiatives to tackle the protracted conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Libya. Another major conflict area which deserved attention was the Sahel, but this could be “a bridge too far,” for Pretoria.

And South Africa still retained the experience and skills derived from its own negotiated transition, to make a contribution to Africa, she thought.

Aditi Lalbahadur of the SA Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) said the steady decline in the financing of the SA National Defence Force had decimated its capacity to intervene in conflicts. Over the last 25 years of the ANC administration, the SANDF had received a smaller budget every year and was now in a crisis.

The last Defence Review, in 2013, estimated that the defence force would require an annual budget of about 2% of GDP to be able to properly perform its role supporting South Africa’s peacekeeping mission in SADC and its immediate neighbourhood. At that time, 2% represented about R100-billion. In reality, the defence force budget has remained stagnant at about R50-billion, or approximately 1% of GDP.

Lalbahadur said that was barely enough to deploy in humanitarian crises, let alone peacekeeping missions.

The need for SA to intervene in human rights and political and security crises would be raised at the AU next year, she said, and agreed with Louw-Vaudran that although South Africa’s capacity to deploy troops had been considerably reduced, its mediation model could still be viable. She said that SAIIA had just met a civil society delegation from Zimbabwe who were visiting South Africa to seek its help in resuming negotiations among the rival groups. They told her that SA was still regarded as an example to follow because of the mediation among rival groups of its own transition.

But she expressed doubts that South Africa would intervene much, given its domestic constraints. She thought it more likely that South Africa would continue a policy of maintaining the status quo rather than taking the lead in Africa.

Louw-Vaudran also wondered whether South Africa might “stick its neck out” by criticising human rights violations on the continent. She thought the strong stand which the AU had taken over Sudan might just have created a climate more conducive to such outspokenness. The AU suspended the military government in Sudan which ousted President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 until it handed over power to civilian authority.

It would have been a good idea if, at his meeting with Guinean President Alpha Conde last week, Ramaphosa told him his determination to seek an unconstitutional third term in office was threatening to destabilise the country,” she said.

Michelle Ndiaye of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Addis Ababa, said the AU expected South Africa would do even better in the AU chair than Rwanda and Egypt had.

She thought that South Africa should focus on economic integration, especially by implementing the AfCFTA, but she cautioned this would require South Africa to address the demand that labour be allowed to cross national borders in order for the free trade agreement to work properly. This was also linked to the AU’s Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, which had been signed in 2018.

And Ndiaye said that many were also expecting South Africa to re-brand Agenda 2063, which had been launched by Dlamini Zuma in 2013 when she was AU Commission chairperson, but which had lost its impetus.

Many in Addis Ababa also expected South Africa to carry forward the AU reforms, including the streamlining of the commission and greater financial autonomy of the organisation, which Kagame had driven so hard, but had not completed. And Pretoria was also expected to speak more loudly for Africa in the international arena.

I don’t believe a lot of people think South Africa is speaking for Africa on the UN Security Council,” Ndiaye said, suggesting that Pretoria has a chance to correct this next year when it will still be on the Security Council. The major priority would be to drive the AU’s demand – so far frustrated, mainly by the US – that the Security Council finance more of the AU’s own peacekeeping missions.

This issue has also caused divisions among African countries with the three current African members on the Security Council – South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea – trying to coax the US to shift its position while other African countries want to be more demanding. DM


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