By Maite Nkoana-Mashabane
We recently returned from Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union (AU), as part of a high-level South African government delegation to the 18th Ordinary Session of the AU Summit.
One of the most anticipated decisions to be made by the Summit (amongst other similarly important decisions) was the election of candidates for the AU Commission chairpersonship.
South Africa had presented Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the Minister of Home Affairs, as a candidate for chairperson of the AU Commission, carrying a mandate from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The fact that we derived the mandate from SADC to field a candidate for this vital position is very significant. Even more so is the active role that SADC played in lobbying for Minister Dlamini Zuma’s candidature.
It is important that we state a few, rarely stated facts in this regard.
Firstly, since the formation in May 1963 of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the Southern Africa region has never been represented in the continental body at the level of chairperson of the Commission.
Secondly, South Africa has never before made an attempt at holding this position; and where we have held positions in the AU, we have always served with humility, leaving when our term came to an end. Not once have we attempted to serve against the expressed wishes of the member states.
We are a progressive constitutional democracy at home; and our foreign policy is guided by our domestic values, key amongst which are the values contained in our constitution.
We seek a better Africa and a better world, and we understand and fully appreciate the delicate political processes and systems we have to go though to realise that fundamental objective.
Which brings us to our third point: historically, the African continent was balkanized into various contending groupings, each with its own colonial master, owing allegiance first to the colonial master.
During the dark days of colonialism, there were moments when we, as Africans, went beyond paying allegiance to the coloniser and actually waged battles against one another on behalf of the colonisers.
When the founding fathers of the AU’s predecessor, the OAU, met in Addis Ababa in 1963, the need for Africans to unite and decide their own destiny came into sharp focus.
Prior to that, in 1961, one of the architects of African unity, Kwame Nkrumah, stated memorably that: “Individually, the independent states of Africa, some of them potentially rich, others poor, can do little for their people. Together, by mutual help, they can achieve much.”
Nkrumah further said of Africa’s potential: “The greatest contribution that Africa can make to the peace of the world is to avoid all the dangers inherent in disunity, by creating a political union which will also, by its success, stand as an example to a divided world.”
Africa today is in a different shape than it was during the founding days of the OAU; and much of what was bemoaned then has been corrected.
Apartheid in South Africa has been abolished, for example, and last year we saw several African states celebrate 50 years of independence.
On the economic front, the continent is also on the move despite persistent challenges in certain parts. For example, Africa is the second fastest growing continent after Asia. Growth is taking place, and with it a general improvement in the quality of life of Africa’s people.
Which brings us to the question relating to our decision to present Minister Dlamini Zuma as candidate for the AU Commission: what is to be done to sustain the positive work done up to now; and how do we tackle some of the challenges still inherent in our divided past?
The South African government believes that Africa needs a stronger and more efficient AU. We went to Addis Ababa with a solid candidate who could steer the AU in this direction; a firm candidate, someone to personify the ideal AU.
Minister Dlamini Zuma would have become the first woman since the formation of the OAU in 1963 to serve as chairperson of our continental body — not only because she is a woman; but because of her proven leadership capabilities.
No woman has ever before come as close as Minister Dlamini Zuma to occupying this vital leadership position in the AU. And, from our considered view as the South African government, the outcome of the AU Commission election does not in any way project a loss.
The election should be understood within the broader context of how democratic institutions operate. Democratic principles dictate that elections be open to all and that anyone be free to run for office.
An inconclusive outcome like the one we just had in Addis Ababa is common in democratic processes. For example, in the United Kingdom, which is one of the oldest democracies in the world, their latest national elections did not produce an outright winner, leading to the coalition arrangement they now have.
The fact that an election in an African political organ has produced an outcome similar to the one above should not be seen as signifying division. It is, rather, a sign of democracy at work.
The fact that Africa’s divided past is cited in the mass media, amongst other quarters, as a reason why South Africa should not have fielded a candidate is paradoxical. One way we can bridge historical divides is to chart our path and make our own history. In Dr Dlamini Zuma as chairperson of the AU Commission, Africa could have done exactly that.
The next AU Summit, to be hosted mid-year in Malawi, will decide on the matter of the chairpersonship of the AU Commission.
For its part, the SADC, upon reflection at its most recent meeting in Cape Town, decided on the following in relation to the matter of the chairpersonship of the African Union Commission.
• Commitment to unity on the SADC candidate, Dr. Dlamini Zuma;
• That the Ad-hoc Committee of Eight Head of States and Government, meet urgently to address the issues relating to the next elections of the members of the AU Commission as mandated by the AU Summit on Jan. 30, 2012;
• The Republic of Angola as the Chairperson of SADC will represent the region in the Committee of Eight Heads of State and Government;
• SADC remains committed to the threshold of two-thirds majority for the election of the Members of the AU Commission in accordance with Rule 42 of the Rules of Procedure of the Assembly of the Union; and
• SADC urges the AU Assembly to conclude the electoral process for the AUC Chairperson as a matter of urgency.
As South Africa, we remain optimistic that the AU Summit will endorse the SADC candidate for the position of AU Commission Chairperson.
Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.