“Jay, what has happened to the leadership in your country? How can you treat Africa like a doormat?” is a comment I come across increasingly in my work across Africa as I meet with senior decision-makers in the government, civil society and even corporate sectors.
The stalemate that emerged following the contest between Jean Ping of Gabon and Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma for the position of African Union Commission Chairperson in Addis Ababa has had wide-ranging repercussions for SA’s foreign policy in Africa and even at home amongst our citizens.
Frankly, I cannot answer our critics. The latest debacle makes me wonder what advice our foreign- office apparatchiks are giving our president. There has been an unwritten law in the diplomatic sphere that no economic or political power should put forward a candidate for such a critical position in the premier institution of African governance.
As the respected Dr Adekeye Adebayo wrote in a recent analysis, “SA, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria are amongst these countries considered Africa’s big powers. Even suggestions that SA and Nigeria become veto-wielding permanent members of the 15-member AU Peace and Security Council were rebuffed in 2004. Africa’s Lilliputians remain extremely wary of overbearing regional Gullivers.”
Our foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said in supporting our candidature: “Should Dlamini-Zuma take up the position, it would not only increase South Africa’s diplomatic stature but also assist with efforts to make the AU an effective institution…developing the African continent, reducing poverty and eradicating conflicts.”
The evidence points to the contrary. Our influence is based on building consensus, trust and confidence. We have never sought to play the role the United States plays on the world stage. We don’t have the armed capacity, resources or political will do this anyway.
Commissioner Ping won the majority of votes in the three elections but fell short of the two-thirds majority that is needed for him to be confirmed. The protocol normally would be that the opposing candidate would step down and throw their support behind the leading candidate.The fourth election saw Ping standing alone.
South Africa stands in the dock of still pressuring our allies to abstain, ending with a humiliating situation in which Ping could not be confirmed, although he was the only candidate standing and won 60% of the votes. And what really offends many African leaders is the sight of some of our delegates tactlessly applauding the fact that Ping had failed to be confirmed.
What has been the result? Well, there are eight other commissioners besides the head of the commission and his deputy. A number of them would have been rotated off, but everything is in limbo because the position of the head of the commission remains unresolved.
The institution is paralysed. The continent is unable to grapple with critical challenges facing us. We have politicised and divided an institution at the time of our greatest need. There is a global economic crisis breathing down our necks with the imminent meltdown of Greece and its contagion effect not only in Europe but particularly in Africa, given that it still represents one of our largest trading partners.
So where does this leave South Africa? We were once the poster boy of Africa. We were touted as the legitimate African candidate for the UN Security Council, but our foreign policy since Nelson Mandela has increasingly alienated our allies.
South Africa in its mediation efforts failed to back the 54-nation body’s demand last year that President Laurent Gbagbo step down after having lost the election to Alassane Ouattara. It also clashed with Gabon, Nigeria and Ethiopia, which recognised Libya’s National Transitional Council when our foreign policy on Libya was doing a flip-flop.
Even our own people are confounded by our indecision in the SADC region when it comes to fundamental human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Swaziland.
“There was a time in our struggle against apartheid that Africa paid a heavy price for supporting the liberation movements,” one of Africa’s most senior statesmen said to me recently. “Why are we doing this to Africa now? Your actions are questionable.” We are increasingly seen as a divisive and an untrustworthy ally.
I study the history of the African Union and its predecessor the Organisation of Africa Unity. I find a comparison in the election of a Nigerian, Peter Onu, who acted as OAU chief from 1983 to 1985. His record was viewed by then President Julius Nyerere as exemplary and he pushed for him to be confirmed. Onu’s home country opposed this decision, not because they did not consider him to be a patriot but because they felt it would break the protocol and saddle the institution with future power struggles. This is what we now stand accused of.
Our other major mistake was to assume that Ping was unpopular. This is where our unpopular policy of “quiet diplomacy” under the Thabo Mbeki administration would have been the right choice. We could have found a consensus among the African presidents that Ping was not the right candidate to lead the institution at this present time. However, we chose a public and political way of challenging Ping and that immediately created camps along the old fault lines of language and politics.
There will be no winner, no matter who wins. The institution will be divided at a time when we are called upon to act as a united continent. We will continue to act as 54 countries or at worst factions that global powers will exploit. Our continuance on seeing ourselves as linguistic and political power blocks instead of the AU ensures our continent remains a lame dog on the global stage.
The next AU head of state conference is in July. Hopefully wisdom will prevail. We cannot have a stalemate for another six months. Senior statesmen of Africa need to swing into action. South Africa in particular has to show leadership. We need a cool head and less intransigence. We need to put the interests of the continent ahead of our national interests. We have created a political dilemma and that can only be solved by our leadership role.
Even if in the unlikely scenario Dlamini-Zuma succeeds in her candidacy, I cannot see how she could do anything more impressive than leaders such as the former Malian president, Alpha Oumar Konare, Guinea’s Diallo Telli and Tanzania’s Salim Ahmed Salim would be able to do with a united Africa behind them.
The appeal of many African patriots is that we exercise our leadership with care. Listen to important voices on our continent. Consult them meaningfully and find an elegant solution. No one wants the most important economic power on the continent to be humiliated and defeated.
There is an old African proverb that says “When the elephants fight, it is only the grass that suffers.” The grass of our continent is our people crushed by the poverty, social exclusion and wars that are mainly the result of our poor governance. These are the very reasons why we need to withdraw our candidacy now and seek a compromise. DM
The Hindenburg had a smoking room.