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South Africa's chance

Ludger Schadomsky
February 11, 2020

An economic and political heavyweight, South Africa has the clout to get things done while chairing the AU. It's also a chance for the country to improve its reputation after recent years, DW's Ludger Schadomsky writes.

Cyril Ramaphosa
Image: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

The African Union's theme for the year is "Silencing the Guns." It's a continuation of the stated 2013 goal by heads of AU states to rid the continent of violent conflict by 2020.

On Monday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in as the AU chairman for a one-year term. His country is an economic and political heavyweight. It also holds a seat on the UN Security Council through the end of the year. This presents an opportunity to, among other things, repair ties between AU members and the United Nations. 

Ludger Schadomsky
DW's Ludger Schadomsky

Some AU leaders have expressed their preference for Ramaphosa — who, in addition to his long political career, has had considerable success as a business tycoon — to focus more on economics than conflict. There are plans to launch the African Continental Free Trade Area in July, though there is much to do before that will become a reality.

Read more: What's left of Nelson Mandela's gratitude to Africa?

African nations could, however, certainly benefit from renewed peace efforts. Currently, there are active violent conflicts in Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Cameroon, Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Ethiopia, where the AU is headquartered, could see serious ethnic clashes break out when voters head to polls later in the summer.

Then there is Libya. In his inaugural speech over the weekend, Ramaphosa announced a fresh initiative toward peace in the North African country. AU leaders were disappointed that neither the UN nor their counterparts in the European Union had included them in peace efforts. But that should not come as a surprise. Even though the AU has vowed "African solutions for African problems," member states have failed to collect even half of the $400 million (€366 million) planned for their Libya fund.

And South Africa's army, which previously participated in numerous UN peacekeeping missions, is badly underfunded: The country has reduced its defense spending to just 1% of GDP. Ramaphosa cannot offer South African troops. Maybe Zimbabwe's efforts to mediate will prove more promising. 

Cameroon violence

Nepotism and xenophobia

Twenty-five years after the abolition of Apartheid rule in South Africa, the country that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had called the rainbow nation is no longer a beacon of good governance. The magic of the era of Nelson Mandela has given way to widespread mistrust.

Read more: Egyptian President el-Sissi's year as head of the African Union

Whether Ramaphosa will manage to set the agenda as chairman of the AU will not only depend on the conflicts in Libya and South Sudan: South Africa will also have to shed its image of nepotism in the long shadow of former President Jacob Zuma and xenophobia following attacks on migrants.  

This is the moment for South Africa to improve its standing. Ramaphosa must speak up for African interests at the United Nations — for instance the envisioned 75-25 funding split for UN-authorized AU-led missions. This means that Ramaphosa might have to confront the administration of US President Donald Trump, which opposes such a funding split. 

Read more: Germany's Merkel vows support to southern African leaders

The African Union also desperately requires institutional reforms. It needs to be trimmed down, as well as given greater political clout and financial independence. Luckily, the AU's New Partnership for Africa's Development initiative and the African Peer Review Mechanism  are based in Midrand, South Africa. That means that Ramaphosa must now show that the AU reform process is more than mere window dressing.

During his term as the AU chairman in 2018, Rwandan President Paul Kagame initiated serious reforms through sheer determination and a clearly defined agenda. Now, it is time for Ramaphosa to show what South Africa is capable of.

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