At the January African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, there was a palpable sense of how the re-admission of Morocco and other issues threaten to tear apart the continent. And South Africa - having opposed Morocco's bid - emerged as one of the big losers.
Earlier this month, South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party released its discussion document on international relations, ahead of its fifth national policy conference in early July. It is clear from the document that the ANC is aware of this reality. Couched in the usual 'anti-imperialist' language, the document lashes out against Western nations, particularly the United States and France, for meddling in African affairs.
The previous such document, published in 2015, was widely criticised for its Cold War-style rhetoric. By comparison, the ANC is now taking a more sober view of South Africa's role in the world, and possible solutions to the problems that plague the continent.
Titled 'The ANC in an unpredictable and uncertain world that is characterised by increased insecurity and the rise of populism', the document warns that the continent is on a dangerous path. 'Left unchecked, the current realignment would create subjective conditions for the return of neo-colonial and neo-patrimonial political and economic relations on the continent,' it states.
The ANC sites three examples of this 'realignment' of the continent.
Firstly, while Morocco's admission to the AU is seen as an opportunity to address self-determination for Western Sahara (Morocco, for now, is not trying to get the Democratic Arab Sahrawi Republic expelled), the ANC stresses the need to get AU and United Nations (UN) resolutions on the Western Sahara implemented.
This refers to resolutions on a referendum for the territory claimed by Morocco. The ANC vows not to give up the fight in support of its longstanding ally, the Polisario Front. ANC diplomats, speaking on the margins of the recent AU summit, accused 'outside forces', particularly France, of manipulating the pro-Moroccan vote - and thus contributing to what the ANC sees as the threat of neo-colonial influence on the continent.
Secondly, the ANC says 'progressive forces' cannot turn a blind eye to the efforts by Israel to galvanise support in Africa, and expresses concern about an upcoming Israel-Africa summit to be held in Togo in October this year.
Finally, the ANC urges African countries to act in unison when it comes to decision making in institutions like the UN Security Council (UNSC). In the past few months, the so-called A3 - the African non-permanent members of the UNSC - have been divided over key issues such as the Western Sahara.
The difficulty that AU members face in generating consensus was again highlighted in debates at the January AU summit. This dissention is expected to continue. Egypt and Ethiopia disagree on many fronts, and both are now non-permanent members of the UNSC.
The sentiment within the ANC - that it is losing its continental leadership role - is borne out by statements made during the Parliamentary debate that followed this year's AU summit.
The ANC chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on International Relations, Moses Masango, said 'that the AU has failed the people of Western Sahara and the people of Africa, especially because the OAU [Organization for African Unity] was initially formed to address decolonisation.'
The Deputy Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Luwellyn Landers, stressed in his answer to parliamentarians that South Africa, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Angola, Mozambique and Uganda opposed Morocco's bid. He agreed that 'the AU has let the Western Sahara down,' according to minutes of the meeting. Landers added that 'it seems that South Africa does not enjoy the support and authority it used to have in the AU.'
The Institute for Security Studies' Jakkie Cilliers says South Africa's diminishing role in the AU is partly due to the fact that President Jacob Zuma's administration has become more inward looking.
The role of the former AU Commission chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, didn't help either, since her disputed election in 2012 gave the impression that South Africa wanted to steamroll its way into AU institutions. She was reluctant to take up the position at the start, and then left after a single term, which was also damaging to her and to South Africa.
The main issue that severely damages South Africa's standing on the continent, however, is xenophobia, says Cilliers.
The discussion document on international relations doesn't speak to this specifically, but stresses that integration is imperative for Africa's development and progress. According to the ANC document, the organisation has to educate South Africans regarding the positive role that African migrants play in the country. 'Our economy has benefited from the inflow of Africans with scarce skills and are economically active,' it states.
Whether this suggestion will be followed, remains to be seen. Attempts to eradicate xenophobic violence have failed over the years, seriously undermining South Africa's relations with big powers on the continent, such as Nigeria. Since this directly affects its electorate, the ANC is likely to discuss the issue further at the policy conference from 30 June to 5 July.
Cilliers notes that on calls for reforming the UNSC, which runs like a thread through the entire policy document, there seems to be a slight opening of the debate and a shift away from the AU's official stance on the matter.
Without UNSC reform, accusations of an unjust global governance system will never go away. Yet the stalemate between those who want reform and the veto-wielding permanent five members of the UNSC continues.
The AU in 2005 adopted the Ezulwini Consensus, which asks for two African permanent seats (with veto rights) on the UNSC, and calls for the five rotating seats on the UNSC to be expanded to 26 members. South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt all lay claim to the two permanent seats. However, other groups, such as the G4 (Germany, India, Japan and Brazil), which all aspire to permanent seats, have not agreed to support Ezulwini. 'For now, there is no movement at all', says Cilliers.
While it doesn't mention the Ezulwini Consensus, the ANC document recognises that all avenues for reform have so far been blocked. It calls for the party to 'reignite discussions within the continent' about the global governance system, and asks the policy conference to consider how the ANC could assist the AU to achieve consensus on UNSC reform. Despite the UNSC's faults, the ANC believes that a reformed UN is still the world's best bet to ensure stability in an unpredictable and increasingly fractured world.
With populist parties in Europe gaining ground and Donald Trump's 'America first' doctrine reverberating across the globe, the ANC believes that organisations such as the AU and the UN remain 'a bulwark against unilateralist and war-mongering tendencies that are based on crude national interests of the powerful nations.' For the AU to be a force for stability in the world, however, it will need to show more unity.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant