The AU, Nepad and Mbeki's 'progressive African agenda'

South Africa’s attempts in the past eight years to help craft the African “progressive” public policy landscape are closely identified with the “African Agenda”, or African renaissance—the progressive Africanist policies of President Thabo Mbeki and his continental allies.

A primary goal of this “African Agenda” is to integrate the continent into the global economy on the basis of “mutual responsibility” and “mutual accountability”. Mbeki and his allies have therefore sought to persuade a majority of African governments to support their agenda by engaging in “trade-off diplomacy” with the West.

South Africa’s “African Agenda” is an impressive and ambitious plan as it involves a wide range of measures to make democratic political systems, peace and security and accelerated economic growth the cornerstones of development in Africa.

Yet there are concerns throughout the continent about South Africa’s “giantism”. There is fear and resentment of Tshwane behaving like, and harbouring the goals of, a domineering hegemon.
There is thus a perception in some quarters that South Africa wants to dominate its region.

It is important that Tshwane monitors these concerns and does not act in ways that reinforce these perceptions. To its credit, it has pushed for multilateral conduct and mechanisms within the African Union (AU), the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Mbeki has built strategic partnerships with key African leaders—particularly Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano and, more recently, Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete—in coordinating their African foreign policy strategies.

In addition Tshwane has encouraged Africa’s regional economic communities, such as SADC, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to reform and streamline their work to be consistent with Nepad and the AU.

Fully aware of the central role that the AU—the continent’s premier pan-African institution—must play in political and economic affairs, South Africa, unsurprisingly, took the lead at the Durban summit in July 2002 when the Organisation of African Unity was formally buried and the AU was born.

The South African-based unicameral Pan-African Parliament (PAP)—a symbol of the country’s continental leadership aspirations—is key among the 18 new organs for which the AU’s constitutive Act of 2000 makes provision. But, while the PAP could well become one of Africa’s most important representative institutions, there were reports by May last year that it was experiencing financial difficulties caused by non-paying members.

A major challenge for the AU will be to convince its member states of the need to pool some of their sovereignty under the umbrella of the organisation and its organs. This challenge is being played out in the “great debate” about a “United States of Africa” in which idealistic “federalists”, such as Libya’s Moammar Gadaffi, are pitted against pragmatic “gradualists”, such as Mbeki.

South Africa has long been instrumental in articulating the right to intervene in the affairs of member states in grave circumstances. Nelson Mandela and Mbeki both consistenly argued for a continental intervention regime and a move away from the OAU’s obsession with the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs.

But if South Africa played a key role in the making of the AU, it had an even more influential role in the creation of Nepad, which was driven largely by Mbeki. The partnership is based on African leaders holding one another accountable in exchange for the recommitment of the industrialised world to Africa’s development. This epitomises Tshwane’s Africa strategy—so much so that it has caused irritation among other African governments.

South Africa was so determined to see Nepad succeed that, by last year, it was seeking to transform Nepad into its own domestic socio-economic plan, leading to a perception throughout the continent that South Africa would allow Nepad to rival the AU.

One of the most innovative programmes advocated by Mbeki and his allies was the introduction of an African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) in 2003. There were great expectations for the success of South Africa’s own peer review process in 2005/06 since the country was such a central player in the articulation of Africa’s emerging governance architecture.

Yet the South African process kicked off with great animosity and tension between the government and local civil society actors. Many South African NGOs were critical of what they regarded as the “controlled” nature of the South African process, charging that the government was seeking to dominate and dictate it.

In November last year the leaked report of the APRM’s Panel of Eminent Persons on South Africa made critical recommendations in areas such as: unemployment; capacity constraints and poor service delivery; poverty and inequality; land reform; violence against women and children; HIV/Aids; corruption; crime; xenophobia and racism; and managing diversity.

The report was met with objections from the South African government. Whether and how the tension over South Africa’s APRM draft report is resolved is likely to have a huge effect on a process that Tshwane was so instrumental in creating and shaping.

Nevertheless, it is the creation of the AU and Nepad that are most likely to be regarded as Mbeki’s greatest legacies.

Chris Landsberg is director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg

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