No. 254: Anniversary prompts African reflection / Mark Paterson / Business Day
24 May 2013
While the 50th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) is a cause for celebration in Addis Ababa — the body's birthplace and the home of its successor, the African Union (AU) — the occasion has also prompted much sober reflection, and not a little cynicism, among diplomats in the Ethiopian capital on the success or otherwise of pan-Africanism in action.
The achievements and development of both the OAU, which was created on May 25 1963, and the AU have been of particular relevance to South Africa's emergence as a democracy.
Although the African leaders at the founding conference half a century ago were divided over the kind of organisation they envisaged — with the radical bloc led by Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah favouring total economic and political unity for the continent, and the more conservative majority seeking a gradualist approach — they soon united in support of decolonisation and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Led by the OAU during the Cold War, the African Group at the United Nations (UN) was a disciplined and formidable voting bloc. With great ingenuity and resolve, it oversaw the imposition of sanctions against both Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa — the first use of such measures in the world body's history.
After South Africa was readmitted into the international fold in 1994, it once again occupied a central role in the development of pan-African institutions.
As a moral beacon under Nelson Mandela, South Africa adopted an activist role in relation to human rights. A key concern of the OAU had been to safeguard the sovereignty of Africa's newly independent states by forbidding interference in their affairs, which led to serious violations of human rights being ignored in some African countries.
The issue became critical after an estimated 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Mandela's administration
supported calls for African intervention to protect the human rights of innocent civilians. The AU subsequently became the first such body to incorporate ideas around a "responsibility to protect" into its constitution, and South Africa provided crucial support to AU peacemaking efforts in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d'Ivoire.
As well as signalling the adoption of a different kind of pan-Africanism, the AU's creation in 2002 also marked the importance of African multilateralism within South Africa's foreign policy. In a reversal of the militarist, destabilising role adopted in southern Africa by the apartheid government, South Africa has preferred to act under the authority of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) or the AU.
The approach has further allowed the government to promote multilateral mechanisms and norms through which it can pursue its own diplomatic goals. Thus South Africa helped to shape the AU following its birth in Durban.
Thabo Mbeki was the continental body's first chairman and the intellectual architect of its economic programme — the New Partnership for Africa's Development. South Africa's then foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, similarly adopted an activist role on the AU's executive council.
Multilateralism on the continent and beyond has remained a fundamental tenet of foreign policy under President Jacob Zuma since 2009, although the country's growing continental and international diplomatic ambitions have also resurrected fears in Africa that South Africa is adopting an overweening role.
Zuma's administration has led efforts to implement a Sadc-sponsored political agreement in Zimbabwe, and has engaged in seeking
an African-backed resolution to the continuing constitutional crisis in Madagascar.
It has also forged a strategic relationship with Angola in pursuit of the two countries' goals on the continent.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa has pledged troops to reinforce a UN-approved intervention force and has reiterated that only a regional approach can resolve the conflicts — although South African economic interests in Congo have led some to question its motives.
In general, South Africa's diplomacy in Africa has demonstrated a relatively functional approach. In the 1990s, Mbeki's promotion of an "African renaissance" clothed SA's pan-Africanism in rhetoric, but the country's actual engagement with the OAU and the AU has been more down to earth. Mbeki opposed the late Muammar Gaddafi's federalist plan for a "United States of Africa" at a grand debate on the AU's future held in Accra in 2007, and during a recent interview to mark the OAU's golden jubilee, the new South African chairwoman of the AU Commission, Dlamini-Zuma, said: "Even if you're borderless, if you can't drive from one place to another it means nothing."
The bread and butter of regional integration — interconnected road and train networks — appear to preoccupy her more than any grand vision of a united Africa, she said.
However, even from a strictly functional perspective, Africa's continental body still faces huge challenges 50 years on.
The AU Constitutive Act of 2000 established 17 key institutions, some of which have overlapping mandates, while others continue to represent aspirations for future integration rather than serving present needs. For example, the planned birth of the African Court of Justice never happened, and only five countries — far short of the 15 required — have signed the protocol for the African Court of Justice and Human Rights supposed to take its place.
Some instruments, such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, are actively opposed by a vocal minority of countries. Other protocols — such as those on women's rights and combating corruption — languish unsigned by many states. The extent of South Africa's engagement in region-building in Africa bears testimony to a foreign policy shaped by a commitment to multilateralism over the past two decades. In particular, South Africa has recognised the importance of creating common markets to facilitate the continent's economic development.
But, in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-09, multilateral initiatives have been increasingly challenged by more nationalist perspectives.
As South Africa seeks to address its domestic challenges, fears have mounted that parochial concerns may increasingly shape its foreign policy.
Paterson is a senior project officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.