Frontline Africa Advisory

Reflections on South Africa’s African Union Chairmanship in 2020:  Successes and Shortcomings

Reflections on South Africa’s African Union Chairmanship in 2020: Successes and Shortcomings

February 2021 marked the end of South Africa’s term as Chair of the African Union (AU). Under South Africa’s leadership, the AU assumed a number of priorities including furthering peace and security; the economic empowerment of women; and deepening economic integration.  

Keeping to the AU theme for 2019, “Silencing the guns, creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development”, President Cyril Ramaphosa sought to end conflict, political instability and insecurity, as they are major threats to the economic development on the continent. The longstanding conflicts in Libya and South Sudan stood as examples of the effects of conflict not only to those countries, but the instability of their regions as well. To this effect, President Ramaphosa reiterated the need to ensure the implementation and coordination of the African Peace and Security Architecture and the African Governance Architecture for quick and adequate responses to conflict and instability. 

The continent recorded some successes with the assistance of international players. A UN Special Envoy to Libya led mediation efforts that resulted in a ceasefire agreement in October 2020 followed by rigorous political dialogue in November where Libyans agreed to talks on holding national elections in December 2021.

In South Sudan, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition Riek Machar reached an agreement to form a Transitional Government of National Unity. South Sudan’s transitional government has since signed a peace agreement with rebel groups in which the African Union has been one of the guarantors of the deal.

Although some successes were recorded in 2020, the continent experienced increased levels of political instability and reversals of democracy with a number of elections being characterised by violence against opposition parties, media censorship and disputed elections.   The AU, under South Africa was found wanting and did not take leadership on this front and failed to condemn nor call for investigations of such acts when they were alleged or occurred. South Africa’s delayed response to a request for support in dealing with the insurgency in Northern Mozambique, its deafening silence on the electoral violence in Morocco, the Ivory Coast and tensions in the Sahel region following the August coup d’etat in Mali, the on-going political and security situation in Zimbabwe and the eruption of the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray state was a complete let-down for many who had some semblance of hope in Ramaphosa’s leadership.  Ramaphosa adopted a posture of being too cautious in calling out violations against human rights and the undermining of democracy and good governance in these countries.

It must be noted that not all was doom and gloom. A notable success of South Africa’s term was the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) on the 1st of January 2021. The AfCFTA is a flagship project of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, that aims to boost intra-African trade through freer movement of goods and services, people and investments. Despite the difficulties presented by the pandemic and the postponement of the AfCFTA summit which was scheduled for May 2020, South Africa worked hard to ensure the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement 6 months after its initial date of July 2020.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic came unexpectedly in the continent, President Ramaphosa must be commended for acting swiftly to mobilise partners, resources and ensure adequate response to the pandemic. The AU was swift to launch the COVID-19 Response Fund to mitigate the social, economic and humanitarian impact of the pandemic across the continent. South Africa was also instrumental in the AU participating in the WHO COVAX Programme to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world. Through its efforts, the AU secured a provisional 270 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from manufacturers for member states to supplement the COVAX programme.  

Though, President Ramaphosa has fared well in leading the continent’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and kickstarting the AfCFTA, it can be said that South Africa could have done more during its term as AU Chair in ensuring peace and stability on the continent. With President Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo of the Democratic Republic of Congo taking over as the Chair of the AU, it is hoped that more effort will go towards resolving the challenges that continue to plague the continent and hamper its economic development efforts.  

Written by Neo Tsotetsi

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