It is more a picture of partnership, the sharing of strategies and resources and resilience and innovation – individually, nationally and regionally – on a continent that is firmly on the rise even in the face of an existential challenge to the biomedical vulnerability of all human beings.
This has been the imposing backdrop to South Africa’s year-long tenure as Chair of the African Union.
South Africa’s Chairing of the African Union (AU) in 2020 has been adversely affected by the unprecedented advent of the coronavirus pandemic across the world, which caused some of the planned priorities for the continent to be put on hold.
Although the AU theme for the 2020 is “Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development”, the focus has primarily been on ‘silencing’ an invisible and resilient organism that has claimed thousands of lives across the world.
Arrival of COVID-19 to Africa
When South Africa assumed the AU Chair in February 2020, COVID-19 was rapidly spreading throughout the world, with the first COVID-19 positive case in Africa reported in Egypt. The subsequent declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation necessitated a refocused agenda for South Africa’s Chairing.
The pandemic adversely affected most AU plans, with physical meetings or summits being postponed after most AU member states imposed travel restrictions and national lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus.
Among other changes, a summit on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that was scheduled to take place in South Africa earlier this year was postponed to 5 December 2020.
This summit is envisaged to finalise some of the outstanding issues relating to trading under the AfCFTA agreement, which seeks to create a single continental market for goods and services in Africa, and enable a freer movement of people around the continent.
As a result of the postponement, trade under this agreement will now start on 1 January 2021.
The AfCFTA creates a single continental market for goods and services in Africa and presents an opportunity for African countries to diversify their exports, attract foreign direct investment and grow their respective economies. This agreement will be key in unlocking Africa’s economic potential.
It will also promote domestic trade and reduce reliance on external trading. The goal of increasing intra-Africa trade from 18% to 50% within a decade is instrumental in assisting the continent to rebuild economies devastated by COVID-19.
In his 9 February Acceptance Statement as Chair of the AU, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “The AfCFTA that we adopted last year will enable us to work together through intra-Africa trade, as it will reignite industrialisation and pave the way for Africa’s integration into the global economy as a player of considerable scale.
“It is the realisation of the dream of our forebears, to see the rich resources of Africa being marshalled for the collective benefit of Africans.”
Challenges posed by the pandemic
COVID-19 has subsequently challenged the continent to ensure that in our fight against the coronavirus disease, we do indeed secure collective benefits for all Africans. As the rates of COVID-19 infections appear to be declining globally, Africa has thankfully recorded lower rates of infections and successfully reduced the spread of the virus.
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The Director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr John Nkengasong, has attributed Africa’s recovery rate at 72% to the firm promotion of health protocols such as the wearing of masks in public, social distancing and regular washing of hands.
While it is still early to celebrate such a remarkable milestone, he says the continent is beginning to slowly “bend the curve” of infections. However, Africa is cautiously mindful of the fact that some of the countries that slowed the curve have had new spikes of infections.
While many parts of the world are learning how to deal with a pandemic, Africa has also had meaningful lessons from dealing with outbreaks such as Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Yellow Fever.
These lessons have played a key role in how the continent responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. African countries were forced to take urgent action to respond to the unforeseen circumstances caused by the pandemic.
As the Chair of the AU, South Africa has been working tirelessly with relevant AU structures to channel efforts towards containing the spread of the virus, while being alive to the objective of creating a peaceful and stable continent. AU member countries have rallied together to achieve a pandemic-free continent and support the mission to establish a peaceful and prosperous continent.
A number of virtual meetings have been held with African Heads of State to find ways to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
These meetings have resulted in the development of the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19, which established an AU COVID-19 Response Fund to assist member states in funding an effective response.
In his capacity as Chairperson of the AU, President Ramaphosa has appointed Special Envoys to solicit international support to enable African countries to respond adequately and swiftly to challenges caused by the pandemic.
To date, international institutions such as the G20 and European Union have provided monetary support to the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19 for a comprehensive economic stimulus for Africa.
These Special Envoys have since succeeded in negotiating with the international community to provide debt relief and debt repayment exemption for Africa’s poorest countries to fight COVID-19. By September 2020, nine African countries had applied for the debt repayment moratorium.
In August 2020, the AU launched the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, an innovation that will enable all countries on the continent to procure much-needed supplies faster at more competitive prices. This platform will also assist with price competition and reduce costs. All countries will have equitable access to products made in Africa, including medical supplies.
President Ramaphosa and other African leaders have demonstrated the resilience and flexibility of the continent to rise against the devastating impact of COVID-19. South Africa will continue to work with fellow African countries to fortify efforts that respond swiftly to all challenges and intensify efforts to ensure a peaceful, stable and prosperous Africa.
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