The commodity boom of the past decade and the rise of China and India have brought fresh challenges for Africa. In times when a dominant power is in relative decline and dauphins are emerging, instability in the international system is historically the result. Africa, because of its resources and huge economic and consumer potential, will be a focal point as these geopolitical and economic shifts play themselves out.
South Africa’s bid for the African Union commission chair started from the idea that increasing “foreign interference” in Africa required an AU leader to be able to chart an independent course. South Africa saw a French hand, seemingly marginalising the AU, in the conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Madagascar.
The Libyan crisis last year showed an indecisive, divided AU lacking a nuanced diplomatic appreciation of power dynamics. Some of these weaknesses can be ascribed as much to personalities — such as AU chair Jean Ping, in South Africa’s view — as they can to the actual and putative powers of the AU.
The AU models itself on the European Union, but its powers are much smaller. Without substantial decision-making powers, in a crisis the AU is marginalised. More fundamentally, it is hard to find a “common voice” when the commission has to meld the interests of 54 member states.
Regional rivalries are unavoidable. More disruptive, though, is ongoing political instability in key AU driver states. The EU’s success is ascribed to the central roles of France and Germany in driving integration. In Africa, by contrast, instability plagues Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, Egypt and Libya. Can these driver states, as they struggle to maintain internal stability, help to strengthen the AU?
Apart from these political challenges, the AU has organisational problems requiring the building of its institutional capacity, including its human resources. It will have to fill vacancies on merit, not regional or historical sentiment; it must revise its election rules and its key performance indicators. It will have to be realistic in what the AU can achieve, given its size and the divergent interests of its members — the EU still struggles with this.
The more basic question is whether the AU can “protect” Africa from foreign interference. Can it navigate the competing interests of emerging and established powers? Even a highly competent and bold commission leader would battle to achieve this. South Africa’s position on Côte d’Ivoire was diametrically opposed to that of the Economic Community of West African States. Nigeria supported the UN position and, by extension, the involvement of UN troops. A similar situation arose when some African countries broke ranks with the initial AU position on nonrecognition of the Libyan National Transitional Council after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall.
For the AU to play a “protective” role, it would require a core group of states representative of its regions and with shared values; it would need a common strategy and set of tactics to tackle politically contested issues. This may seem utopian now, for all the rhetoric about African unity, yet the EU forged amity between erstwhile enemies after World War II.
This brings us to South Africa’s role. Since 2000 it has invested much in the AU’s institutional architecture. But it is underrepresented in AU structures. Many analysts and officials inside and outside South Africa argue that it is a natural leader on the continent because of its hard and soft infrastructure, economic strength and willingness to take on regional and global issues. Its diplomatic engagement with other African states has not usually meant bullying tactics or contrarian positions. Under President Jacob Zuma, however, this is eroding. Côte d’Ivoire and Libya no doubt haunted South Africa’s bid for the AU chair.
Unlike Thabo Mbeki, Zuma is not seen as a foreign-policy president. Yet the Zuma administration successfully lobbied for South Africa to join the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), steered South Africa to a second term as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council, held firm on much of the road map in Zimbabwe and played a key role in the transition to an independent South Sudan.
The white paper on foreign policy published late last year explicitly noted that “a number of regional trends could combine to result in challenges to South Africa’s regional leadership position”. This is a rare public admission that South Africa has rivals on the continent — that African brotherhood stops when it threatens core interests and that the rhetoric of solidarity masks real competition between states. If this is correct, South Africa’s bid for the AU chair signalled its intention to be more assertive in its engagement with African institutions and the continent. Was it audacity or a well-calculated strategy to overturn the status quo and unsettle things a little? From the responses of the South African delegation, it seems the latter.
Perhaps the most important outcome was that South Africa’s bid may introduce public contestation in the AU instead of the insistence on consensus. Incumbency often leads to complacency and inertia, whereas competition can stimulate action and innovation. If the AU is to live up to the aspirations of its founders and its own Constitutive Act, it will need more of the latter and less of the former.
If South Africa sees its core mission as containing “foreign interference” in Africa, what does that mean in practice? It is about the high politics of political choices and intervention, not the low politics of trade and investment relations. But it is hard to know whether “foreign interference” is welcomed by Africans, or not, when there is a confluence of interests between certain African and external players.
It is the curse of big states that size and dominance often preclude them from contesting certain positions in continental institutions. The AU elections showed that fear of a “big brother” trumps a candidate’s merits. There are valid concerns about domination by one state. Again, lessons can be drawn from the EU: it is rare for the two main drivers, France and Germany, to hold the top bureaucratic positions — the notable exception being Jacques Delors’s presidency in the 1980s and early 1990s.
So how should a big state lead on the continent? Dominant states can use soft tools; South Africa could adopt Barack Obama’s approach and “lead from behind”, using diplomacy to build alliances with small and medium-ranked states based on shared values and a vision of the AU as more capable and decisive. South Africa could help to strengthen the Southern African Development Community as a model for such a continental project.
South Africa should also build alliances with other continental powers to help to drive the process. It does not require a South African AU chair, but certainly one that shares this vision and recognises that learning to cooperate is an imperative. That would be South Africa’s audacity of hope.
Elizabeth Sidiropoulos is the national director of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.