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South Africa’s run as chair of the African Union (AU) will come to an end this week at the African Union Summit, which takes place over the weekend — with the role to be taken over by the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa took over as AU Chair in February last year and was welcomed to the position at the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

The year that followed tested the African continent on several fronts as the pandemic highlighted gaps in Africa’s health care systems and lack of economic and social development.

In 2020, Africa was also burdened by conflicts that arose in the eastern and western parts of the continent, including civil disputes that the United Nations’ deemed a “full scale humanitarian crisis” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests which garnered international attention. 

At the beginning of 2020, Ramaphosa’s priorities as Chair of the African Union included furthering peace and security on the continent, promoting women’s economic empowerment, and deepening intra-state economic integration. 

As the pandemic persisted throughout the year, these priorities naturally had to shift to include Africa’s pandemic strategy and continental relief from the pandemic’s impacts. 

In a short space of time, the South African president managed to lay down the groundwork for most of his initial priorities and has implemented strategies for the continent to continue responding to the pandemic after his chairmanship. 

Here are some key things that South Africa has managed to achieve in its one-year term as chair of the AU: 

1. Securing 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines

In the latter half of 2020, Ramaphosa established the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), a group of 10 individuals from across the continent whose main goal is to secure enough COVID-19 vaccines to achieve continental herd immunity by 2022. 

The establishment of the AVATT came in response to the vaccine nationalism taking place around the world, where wealthier countries have bought more than enough vaccines to inoculate their total populations, without consideration for middle- and low-income countries who cannot afford to acquire enough vaccines for their citizens. 

To date, the African Union has secured 1 billion doses of the vaccine through the AVATT’s efforts, which will be distributed among the member states of the AU. 

2. COVID-19 debt relief and financial assistance

As AU member states acknowledged the serious impact that the pandemic would have on the continent, under Ramaphosa’s leadership, several prominent Africans were appointed as special negotiators who communicated with international financial contributors and institutions to discuss financial support and debt relief on Africa’s behalf. 

This achieved debt relief for many middle- and low-income countries — such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Kenya — and secured financial assistance for Africa’s pandemic response and future economic recovery. 

The African Union also established the African Medical Supplies Platform as well as a continental COVID-19 response fund to help ensure that all African countries could respond immediately to the pandemic without having to wait for international assistance. 

3. Building on Africa’s economy

In 2020 the AU was finally able to launch the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA), which had been in development for over two years. 

This launch worked in line with Ramaphosa’s economic integration priority. According to the World Bank, the establishment of the AfCTFA will create the largest free trade area in the world connecting 1.3 billion people. The success of AfCTFA could potentially lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty. 

4. Promoting peace in Africa’s east

The continent saw several civil conflicts arise in 2020 and part of the AU’s purpose is to unite nations and help bring an end to conflict. In his first weekly newsletter for February, on Feb. 1, Ramaphosa confirmed that the AU has been actively involved in negotiations around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in order to achieve a ceasefire in Libya and promote peace in South Sudan.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi, who will succeed Ramaphosa as AU Chair this week, will continue these efforts to achieve peace, and is also expected to address the long-standing unrest in the Great Lakes region. 

5. Decade of Women’s Economic Financial Inclusion

Ramphosa championed a 10-year continental declaration aimed at gender equality and women’s empowerment that was introduced in February 2020. This declaration, called the Decade of Women’s Financial and Economic Inclusion, sees African leaders commit to taking action for gender inclusion towards sustainable development at national, regional, and continental levels.

In his newsletter Ramaphosa said that South Africa will continue to champion this declaration even beyond the country’s term as AU Chair. 

What will the new AU Chair prioritise?

President Cyril Ramaphosa will make way for the DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi, who has already appointed a high-level panel to advise him on the role. The panel will also reportedly advise him on the steps to take with regard to conflicts in Libya, Sahel, Mali, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and potentially the eastern region of the DRC. 

Tshisekedi will also reportedly prioritise handling the impact of COVID-19, post-conflict reconstruction and development, and continental trade. Further priorities are expected to be confirmed at the AU Summit this weekend. 


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