19 July 2012

Africa: AU, African Agenda - Challenge for New Chair


THE African Union Commission chairpersonship has now landed south of the African continent. It is a victory that we celebrate with both anticipation and caution. The months of lobbying and the series of SADC ministerial meetings have now culminated in the highest diplomatic office on the continent landing within our region. Are there implications to this victory? What are the issues to be cautious about as we receive and glorify ourselves in this victory?

The first distinction we have to make is whether this victory is for South Africa or southern Africa? Conventionally a victory for South Africa is supposed to reflect as a victory for the region. However, regional political dynamics can diffuse such possibilities. We need to critically engage the motivation behind South Africa's poised candidacy against the regional expectation in landing this coveted position.

In the last couple of years we have seen South Africa stretching at the glorious opportunity to become a global player. In 2011 South Africa joined the exclusive BRICS grouping - countries with an appetite for proving the dissipation of economic influence from the traditional old bloc to emerging economies. As the only African country in this group, this makes South Africa unique. As much as many may view this as an opportunity for Africa in totality; there are others who view South Africa as being exclusively elitist. This view is borne from the economic distance between it and the rest of the continent.

The liberation history theorists view South Africa's independence of 1994 as not having fully transferred the economic benefits and opportunities to the black majority. The current domestic pressure on the South African administration is a result of the emergence of political and economic elites who seem to lack the courage to dismantle the minority's hold on the economy.

South Africa's role in SADC has also been of interest. During Mandela's presidency - South Africa exhibited its neo-liberal identity but without a stringent pan-African conformance. During Thabo Mbeki's era there were attempts at infusing the South African ideological standpoint into the broader African framework. These were the days of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and African Renaissance. Thabo Mbeki's era, however, failed to address the historical economic imbalances in the country. Now, the Jacob Zuma administration seems to have a forceful impetus towards increasing South Africa's global visibility without critically addressing the domestic "pressure pot" of economic disparities.

In general, South Africa has a swinging and somewhat confusing foreign policy position yet there is a whole region and continent looking up to its leadership. Others see South Africa's failure to address the marginalisation of its black people as a fundamental issue of either the ultra-capitalistic domination of its government or the simple loss of a pan-African identity. Normally when a nation's identity is ill-defined or faceless its foreign policy becomes hazy or dominated elsewhere or by non-essentials. Foreign policy is derived from domestic priorities. Foreign policy must ultimately feed the domestic needs of a country. South Africa's fuzzy foreign policy therefore arises from the domestic priorities that seem to still be controlled by an elitist minority and yet overwhelm the majority needs. I don't intend to put the majority at war with the minority but just to expose the glaring gap that exists. That gap will always influence and determine the foreign policy direction that South Africa takes. Is South Africa's aggressive global visibility a result of trying to meet the domestic needs of its populace -- including the marginalised black population? Is South Africa's identity at the global level reflective and representative of the needs of its disadvantaged populace too? Can we locate the domestic needs of ordinary person's needs at the foreign policy level?

So as South Africa chairs the AU Commission we need to interrogate the alignment that the country has with the broader African needs and issues. We need to interrogate the alignment of South Africa's identity and priorities with the SADC region's context? Representation is not merely a matter of geographical identity but the sharing of core needs. South Africa's needs must identify with the core needs of the SADC bloc - if the region is to be fully represented through the new AU chair. When the region stood behind Nkosazana-Zuma; the assumption should have been that she will stand to represent the region. It is the hope of SADC that at least for now, we have a presence at the highest echelon at the AU.

If South Africa is to really avoid the temptation of self-glorification and self-representation at the AU, then it must embrace a broader agenda that takes into account the needs of the region and the entire African people. Historically the relations between SADC and the AU have somewhat been dysfunctional-- especially in the peace and security sector. As much as the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) was designed to feed into and feed from all regional economic communities- its link with SADC has been weak. Currently the region is trying to address the Zimbabwe, Madagascar and the DRC conflicts and political challenges. In Zimbabwe, as much as it was the 2008 AU summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt that tasked SADC to facilitate political dialogue, we have not seen the AU's interest in following up or supporting SADC's role in Zimbabwe. In Madagascar, when the crisis broke out in 2009, the AU actually clashed with SADC as the intervention roles were not clearly defined. The current DRC conflict where the M3 rebels are operating from the eastern border front has also not attracted an urgent response from the AU. This has actually led to Uganda having to raise alarm in the last couple of weeks for the AU to come to terms with its role in resolving this crisis. Such has been the relationship of the AU and SADC - or rather the AU's lack of urgency on southern Africa and SADC matters. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's task will be to bridge that gap - if at all projecting South Africa's responsibilities beyond just serving the country's individual interests.

At the broader AU platform she has to ensure that the APSA is functional enough to intervene and resolve African conflicts without dangling the temptation for unnecessary external interference. She has to prioritise the strengthening of African mechanisms and focus inwardly. Precisely that will be her greatest challenge as South Africa seems to be showing signs that it will be tempted to utilise its continental position as a mere springboard to the global level. Nkosazana-Zuma's position must not be a means to South Africa's end. It must be the primary pre-occupation of her leadership role and supported by her country. As she takes position at the apex of the AU, she must realise that her country's foreign policy - which she once superintended over - has shown flakes of being disconnected from the African agenda. That then must motivate her to salvage South Africa's identity to the African texture.

As we congratulate her ascendency, we are also cautious about what will become of SADC and the AU should she be compelled to sustain South Africa's fuzzy foreign policy at the expense of the AU and SADC's opportunities?

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