Leading Africa through uncertain times: A review of South Africa’s African Union Chairship


In February 2019, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as the incoming Chair of the African Union (AU) for the year 2020. President Ramaphosa assumed the Chairship on Sunday, 9 February 2020 during the first day of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. President Mbeki first Chaired the African Union 18 years ago in 2002, at the official launch of the Union in Durban, South Africa. 2020 therefore served as a unique opportunity for South Africa to bring the AU closer to the people of the continent, and according to the Institute for Security Studies ‘to be part of conversations and be a solution finder in ensuring free and fair elections around the continent and freedom of speech’ – accomplishments South Africa is well-known for.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa stood up in the Nelson Mandela Conference Hall to accept the Chairship of the AU, Covid-19 had just become a reality for the world. An unexpected, unknown and invisible human-to-human transmitted enemy had just been found and announced in Wuhan, China. In his acceptance speech President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined the commitments of the Chairship and the continent, but no one could have predicted that what was to come and how the virus could have an impact on the priorities outlined for the year. As we reflect on a year of instability there is evidence that even in the midst of chaos and crisis lies opportunities to learn, grow, change gears, adjust and incorporate the focus of the commitments made while addressing the effects of the worst global pandemic ever seen in history.

Launch of African Medical Supplies platform

President Cyril Ramaphosa, launched the ‘Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP)’ which was adopted as a single online market to permit the supply of COVID-19-related critical medical equipment in Africa. According to Trade Law Centre the AMSP unlocks instant access to an African and global base of evaluated producers and procurement strategic partners. It permits African Union Member States to buy certified medical equipment such as diagnostic kits, Personal Protective Equipment and clinical management devices with increased cost effectiveness and transparency.

The launch of this platform served as the turning point the continent needed in having access to medical supplies, not only as a tool to fight the epidemic for now, but for the future too. According to Business Day, this development has shaped an opportunity for the continent to work, after Covid-19, towards a lasting solution of collective procurement, which would increase the accessibility and availability of vital health technologies, including drugs, vaccines and diagnostics. The platform will also provide support in steering in a new era of intra-Africa cooperation, work towards an impartial deal to get medicines and supplies to the people who need them most and at affordable prices.

Established African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team

According to SA News.gov, a 10-member African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), was established by President Cyril Ramaphosa in August 2020 and in January 2021, this team confirmed the acquirement of provisional 270 million vaccine doses for African countries, with at least 50 million being available for the critical period of April to June 2021. The AVATT was established to guarantee that the continent would be able to attain adequate vaccine doses in order to achieve herd immunity in the continent. The AVATT team continues to engage and negotiate with other suppliers to secure more vaccines but given the virulent nature of the virus, it is clear that a threat to one nation and continent is a threat to all. To successfully eliminate the worldwide risk of the disease, it is important that a majority of citizens of all nations get urgent and equitable access to the CoVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible and this task team aims to facilitate this reality.

Africa Continental Free Trade Area

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) has completed its two months of trading, having begun its operation at the start of the new year. The rollout of the AfCFTA is a significant milestone, as it is the realisation of one of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063, a continent-wide policy roadmap that aims to facilitate inclusive growth and sustainable development. According to the SDG Knowledge Hub, the AfCFTA is also a stepping stone to an African Economic Community and Customs Union, as envisioned two decades ago under the 1991 Abuja Treaty. To date, 35 of the African Union’s 55 member States have backed the agreement, meaning that the AfCFTA is in effect for those countries but not for the others. Although AfCFTA is being implemented, there are still challenges and learnings that lie ahead but its establishment, is a step in the right direction.

Leading the continent during this difficult time led to the literal meaning and the embodying of the concept “African Union”.  In times of great trials and turmoil President Cyril Ramaphosa invoked and entrenched the spirit of togetherness and working on action plans to take enormous steps in achieving the goals set for economic development for the entire continent. The period of South Africa’s Chairship should be seen as an achievement not only for South Africa but for the continent, in which all its residents and nations should feel proud at having played a role in fighting a common enemy and draw encouragement from this time. If steps of economic development can be taken in the midst of a pandemic, then the future surely belongs to Africa.