Time to reflect on African unity,

21 May 2013

Phumla WilliamsIn the 1980’s South Africa was a country on the verge of implosion. Opposition to the apartheid state was at its peak, a groundswell of popular resistance had emerged and pressure was brought to bear from within and outside the country. Sensing that it was losing its grip on power, the apartheid government declared a State of Emergency that lasted for much of the 1980’s.

However, the will of the people would not be silenced, resistance continued to grow and opposition to apartheid came from all quarters. On the continent the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) , formed on 25 May 25 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, led a chorus of voices calling for an end to apartheid.

From its inception, the OAU was committed to ridding the continent of the remaining vestiges of colonisation and apartheid, while promoting unity and solidarity among African states. In the 1980s it played a pivotal role in pressurise Western nations to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa; this ultimately contributed towards the demise of this unjust system.

On July 25, 1986, days before being elected as chairman of the OAU for a second time, then president of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda met British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe and made it clear that apartheid had to end. "As a fellow human being, Sir Geoffrey, I must welcome you. But as a messenger of what you have come to do in South Africa, you are not welcome at all."

Kaunda said these now famous words in reaction to the reluctance by Britain and the U S at the time to implement stronger economic sanctions against the apartheid state.

This iconic moment can be counted as one of the important milestones on our road to freedom and democracy. On April 27, 1994 our new nation was born and a few weeks later on May 23 1994 we became the 53rd member of the OAU. Our journey came full circle on July 9, 2002 when the OAU was disbanded by its last chairperson, former president Thabo Mbeki, and replaced by the African Union (AU).

Each year on May 25 we celebrate Africa Day and look back at the road travelled by Africans since that momentous day in Ethiopia all those years ago. This year’s celebrations take on an added significance as they mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of the OAU.

On Africa Day we have an opportunity to reflect where we came from, appreciate where we are today and most importantly, plan where we would like to be 50 years from now. Having collectively defeated colonialism and white rule, the continent’s focus has changed from liberation to development and integration to ensure greater socio-economic growth.

Upon reflection one can see the influence of the OAU on where we are today. It was the organisation’s extensive work on fostering co-operation and unity that has helped position Africa at the centre of the current revolution in global economic power.

The vision of the continent was recently outlined by President Jacob Zuma during the World Economic Forum on Africa. He spoke of the May 25 milestone and its impact on us today.

“When we gather at our headquarters in Addis Ababa later this month, we will reflect on the progress made and the challenges. We will also be thinking ahead to the Africa we want to see and live in, in the next 20, 30 and even 50 years,” he said.

The president spoke passionately about how perceptions of Africa have changed, from once being called a hopeless continent, to what is now referred to as the rising continent due to its impressive growth rates.

Highlighting the new-found hope and optimism sweeping the continent he said: “We have the opportunity to define our own future as Africans and create the Africa we desire. An Africa that is united, integrated and free from the scourge of poverty. An Africa that has conducive conditions for trade and investment. An Africa that will enable the creation of sustainable and decent jobs for our people, particularly the youth.”

His words are indeed a clarion call; they are an indicator of the Africa that has begun to emerge. Under the auspices of the AU there has been greater solidarity and unity between African countries, and the dream of greater socio-economic integration and peace, security and stability still burns brightly.

Much work has already been done to leverage the economic clout of the continent. In 2011 the tripartite Initiative was established which aims to bring together the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, Southern African Development Community and the East African Community.

Negotiations for a free trade area are on track and will be concluded by next year, with implementation scheduled for 2015. The first phase of regional integration will see the expansion of existing regional communities and the creation of large trading blocs. The broader free trade area would embrace 26 countries with between 600 million and 700 million people, and a combined gross domestic product of $1-trillion (R8.9 trillion).

Government calls on all South Africans to join us on May 25 when we celebrate Africa Day and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the OAU. We must never forget the unyielding support of fellow African countries during our struggle for freedom. The founding principles of the OAU are just as important as they were 50 years ago.

In the spirit of Africa Day, let us embrace and partner with our fellow African brothers and sisters residing in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. We must be forever mindful that peace and security on the continent remain prerequisites for development and integration, and that our mutual growth and prosperity is inexorably linked.

Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)