A Lack of African Union?
Vol XLVII No.7 February 18, 2012
South Africa’s ambition to dominate Africa opens up deep divisions in the continent.
Africa has, in the recent past, emerged as one of the final frontiers of the global rush for commodities. Whether it is the traditional commodities like oil and copper or new minerals like coltan, whether it is rich agricultural land or biodiversity, Africa is again the centre of global attention. What is significant is that the “emerging powers” like China and India are also leading contenders in this new phase of the race for Africa, along with the older imperialist powers of Europe and North America. What is also different this time is that a few African countries have emerged to take on the mantle of “representing” Africa on the global stage. South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, is the pre-eminent power in Africa and its global presence is underlined by its membership of such bodies as the Group of 20 (G-20) and the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) forum.
As the scramble for African resources intensifies, South Africa wants to position itself as the guardian and safe-keeper of the continent’s interests. It was in line with this that they made a pitch to defeat Jean Ping of Gabon, the incumbent chair of the African Union Commission, the body which is the real power in the African Union (AU), mandated with “driving the African integration and development process”. However, in a loss of major significance, South Africa has failed in its efforts to get its nominee, veteran anti-apartheid activist and present home minister of South Africa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, elected to the post. What is even more telling is that the South African nominee’s votes kept falling in each of the four rounds of polling done to decide the winner. Jean Ping could not get the two-thirds majority he needed to continue, but he did get more support than Dlamini-Zuma.
This election which resulted in an unprecedented stalemate in the decade-old AU has shown some of the deep fissures which divide the African countries and allow external influences to work their ways. For starters, it brought out the division between Francophone and Anglophone Africa. But even within Anglophone Africa, Nigeria in the west and Kenya in the east were not too comfortable with South Africa’s claim to pre-eminence. Then there is the divide between the countries of southern Africa, who have a group of their own (South African Development Cooperation) and those of western and central Africa. Apart from that there is the older division between Arab Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. A further point of dissonance, if not rift, which appeared in the elections was between the smaller African states and the larger ones. South Africa’s insistence on claiming the African Union Commission for itself overturned the unwritten rule in the AU that the larger nations will not put up candidates to the chair.
South Africa’s “leadership” of the continent emerged from both its status as a large economy with a well-developed manufacturing and service sector, a powerful military and most crucially, the ruling African National Congress government’s moral authority after having struggled against and eventually triumphing over apartheid. This was a role which the new, post-apartheid South Africa did play to some extent in the 1990s. The very formation of the AU 10 years ago, on the ashes of the Organisation of African Unity, was under the stewardship of South Africa’s then president Thabo Mbeki. It was also the time when South Africa was not only trying to rally the continent’s diverse governments and societies around a common plan of action but was also campaigning against exploitation by external powers. It was this which got Mbeki to term Chinese agreements with African governments on access to natural resources as akin to colonialism.
While even a decade ago South Africa may have seen itself as primus inter pares among the African states, today its self-perception seems to be different. It wants to be a member of the leading global networks of power and privilege and thus its very view of the African continent seems to be changing too. Like its other IBSA partners, it wants to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
The promise of the AU to provide an effective platform for African unity to defend the common interests of its member-countries against the pressures of the superpowers, both established and emergent, seems to have been short-changed in just a decade. This is primarily due to the rising great power ambitions of South Africa and others like Nigeria, who too seem to harbour such aspirations. As the divisions emerge, so does the space for external powers to meddle, as France “supports” the Francophone states like Gabon while South Africa gets “support” from the United Kingdom, European Union and even its BRICS partner, China. The rise of the new powers is not a challenge to the established global order called imperialism, rather it seemed to be merely an attempt by upstarts like South Africa, Brazil and India, to wriggle their way on to the high table of global power-mongering.