Beware SA exceptionalism in the AU setup_1

Next week, South Africa will assume the position of chair of the continent’s premier body, the African Union (AU). It is an important passing of the baton from one country to another – this time from Egypt to South Africa – in Africa’s determined relay race to shape her future for the better. Underscoring the enormity of the enterprise is this year’s theme of the AU heads of state and government summit – the 33rd – currently taking place at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: “Silence the guns: creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development”. An ambitious objective agreed...
Next week, South Africa will assume the position of chair of the continent’s premier body, the African Union (AU). It is an important passing of the baton from one country to another – this time from Egypt to South Africa – in Africa’s determined relay race to shape her future for the better.

Underscoring the enormity of the enterprise is this year’s theme of the AU heads of state and government summit – the 33rd – currently taking place at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: “Silence the guns: creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development”.

An ambitious objective agreed upon at the 21st summit in May 2013, the AU had hoped to end all wars on the continent the end of this year. Notwithstanding the instinctive tendency to write off the AU in discursive spaces, especially in this country, the continent’s intergovernmental institution has been hard at work towards meeting this objective since 2013. For its mobilising and moral force, the objective surely cannot be questioned.

Of course, one of the critical questions is whether the enormity and complexity of the continent’s conflict-producing factors can be wiped out in so short a period. Consider, for instance, conflict which issues from distributional injustices between the centre and the periphery – many of which date back to the colonial period.

Finding lasting solutions to such conflicts undoubtedly require more time than the 2013 declaration to silence the guns permits.

This is all the more so in a world whose predominant intellectual discourse is largely ambivalent to dialogue on structural poverty and socio-economic systems and approaches intended to confront social inequality.

And what of conflicts such as the one in Libya and the Sahel region which was imposed from without the continent by arty and overzealous forces intent on a new form of colonialism under the nebulous canard of the responsibility to protect? Or other forms of related violence such as is meted out to African migrants that risk their lives in unsympathetic oceans in search of a better life in in a resentful Europe.

A reasonable estimation is that the guns are more than likely to continue to roar with horrific lethality for the foreseeable future.

The reasons are not necessarily a poor reflection on the institution of the AU.

There are a set of complex socio-economic and political factors imbedded in the continent’s history and present place in the ordering of human affairs which need untangling as simultaneously as the search for lasting peace.

After all – and this often escapes many an Afro-pessimist – the AU is but an intergovernmental organisation which can only be effective to the extent that its member state are effective.

According to President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa will pursue a set of six objectives during its tenure as chair of the AU. These are:

“[the promot]ion of South Africa’s values, interests and continental and domestic objectives;
“supporting integration, economic development, trade and investment in the continent;
“driving the implementation of the Presidential Infrastructure Champion Initiative in support of the African Continental Free Trade Area;
“advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women and combat violence against women and girls;
“strengthening cooperation between the African Union and United Nations, and;
“the promotion peace and security and advance the effort to silence the guns.”


But for a word of caution. We would be well advised to exercise circumspection and humility in the conduct of international relations. The export of values onto the rest of the African continent cannot be the expressed objective of any of our 54 countries by any stretch of the imagination.

The proposition of the export of values suggests exceptionalism and superiority of sorts which we should resist; the temptation to proselytise because we possess neither exceptionalism nor superiority.

In any case, the suggestion begs the question, which values?

And what if someone retorted with a catalogue of our well-publicised unsavoury habits and conduct? It is not at all certain that countries that have the export of values as one of their stated objectives necessarily enjoy respect.

So, the promotion of mutual learning which would in turn stimulate cooperation with the rest of the continent and the world is a much better and profitable objective than the export of values.

The pursuit of the interconnected objectives as stated by Ramaphosa will be a positive stimulant to the socio-economic and overall cultural development of the continent while at the same time disincentising the resort to violent conflict as a medium of social and political expression.

Their imminent concern for the inclusive development of the continent has been a key concern of the continent for decades, evidenced, among others, by the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community of 1991, popularly known as the Abuja Treaty.

South Africa’s chairpersonship of the AU alongside the United Nations Security Council, the African Peer Review Mechanism and others is making South Africa somebody again on the international front.

If this is the case as it arguably is, it should also result in reasserting Africa’s voice in the ordering of human affairs.

The opportunity exists for South Africa, together with the rest of the continent, to serve as an agent for the African agenda in global multilateral institutions on such issues that may include the reform of institutions of global political and economic governance.

Over the years, the African voice on these issues withered on the vine. It is likely that the current wave of evolving global agreements on issues such as climate change, trade on the digital and space economies may once again impose a one-size fits all regime to the detriment of the continent. The continent’s home-based intellectuals, as well as other resident further afield, could be mobilised as foot soldiers in this important battle.

Speaking of the continent’s intellectuals, there is no reason why South Africa cannot and should not attract them to work in our research and institutions of higher learning to respond to the country’s skills challenge. Hopefully, the new visa regulations will have this issue in sight.

Ratshitanga is a consultant, social and political commentator. (mukoni@interlinked.co.za)


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