Twenty years of SA's participation on the continent

Julie Middleton. (Supplied)

Julie Middleton. (Supplied)

It has been 20 years since South Africa was admitted back into the international system. Having emerged out of a bitter struggle dislodging apartheid, South Africa adopted a human rights based constitutional order, which is still celebrated across the continent and worldwide as one of the most progressive and aspirational constitutions. 

After 1994, the country quickly rose into leading roles in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity; now the African Union (AU), and at the sub-regional level in the Southern African Development Community. 

By 1996, former President Thabo Mbeki had already begun looking into Africa as his political orientation. His famous “I am an African” speech delivered at the adoption of the constitution gave all indications of a president, and a country, prioritising Africa and inspiring an African Renaissance. 

South Africa became instrumental in the conceptualisation and establishment of the AU’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism, and became the host of the seat of the Pan African Parliament (PAP). 

Soon, the continent looked to South Africa to provide peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, and mediation in Burundi, Zimbabwe and Côte d’Ivoire. With South African Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma becoming AU chairperson in 2012, the country took on even greater prominence in the region. 

Complementing its progressive constitution, legislation and policy, South Africa has ratified all African human rights treaties and has agreed to multiple other regional policies and programmes covering health, conservation, agriculture and extractive industries. 

While successive governments should be applauded for making these commitments, awareness raising, reporting on and implementation of them often lag behind. 

As profiled in the findings of a 2013 report on South Africa’s compliance with 16 selected AU instruments, commissioned by the Southern Africa Trust, the country’s legislation and policy meet and, in the area of gender equality and non-discrimination, often exceed AU commitments. 

The challenge, however, remains one of practical implementation to ensure these documents inspire and translate into real improvements in the lives of South Africa’s citizens. High levels of poverty, inequality and gender based violence persist and demand action.

Likewise, reporting on the seminal African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and its Protocol on the Rights of Women lags far behind, with the last bi-annual report having been submitted in 2005. 

South Africa last year submitted its first, but delayed, report on the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. This year, the first report on the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance — the continent’s latest human rights treaty — comes due. 

Emphasised by these treaties, as well as article 32 of the constitution, there is need to provide better access to information and raise awareness about the rights that South Africa has committed to protect and enable, and the mechanisms that exist to hold leaders accountable for their fulfilment at domestic, regional and international levels. If only 46% of South Africans have even heard about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, as indicated in a recent survey by Foundation for Human Rights, how many are aware of how their rights are protected by AU instruments?  

While South Africa has achieved much on the continent and at home in the past 20 years, much remains to be done. As we look towards the AU’s Agenda 2063, we challenge South Africa to ensure our inspirational regional commitments become more than words alone.

The 2013 South Africa State of the Union Study to Audit and Monitor Compliance and Implementation of Protocols, Conventions and Decisions of the AU Member States, which was commissioned by the Southern Africa Trust, is available on

Julie Middleton is the social accountability programme manager at the Southern Africa Trust.

The contents of this supplement were supplied and signed off by the Southern Africa Trust.