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As South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa begins his term as chairperson of Africa’s premier instrument aimed at promoting good governance among member states, his country has a perfect opportunity to set a good example by using the process to review its own governance failures, writes Steven Gruzd, a leading continental expert on the subject.

JOHANNESBURG – On February 8 in Addis Ababa, South Africa’s President Ramaphosa began a two-year tenure as the chairperson of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM).

South Africa was a critical player in conceptualising and creating the continent’s main governance promotion and monitoring instrument, back in the heady days of President Thabo Mbeki’s “African Renaissance” in the early 2000s.

South Africa houses the APRM secretariat and has injected millions into supporting the system over the years. As the country undertakes its second year on the UN Security Council and also chairs the African Union (AU) in 2020, it has a unique opportunity to provide visionary political leadership once again to elevate good governance, at home and abroad.

South Africa says it is ready for the challenge. Ramaphosa told South African diplomats last month that as APRM chair, “South Africa will be primarily responsible for driving the APRM’s good governance agenda. The delivery of… good governance through democratic practice and economic growth reduces political tensions in countries with social divisions.”

He highlighted good governance – along with economic integration and women’s empowerment – as one of three main priorities for South Africa’s chairing of the AU, which, he added, “must be underpinned by the promotion of a peaceful and secure Africa.”

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr. Naledi Pandor, has similarly peppered recent speeches with references to the centrality of good governance and the APRM.

South Africa has long stressed that without good governance in Africa, there cannot be real peace or prosperity. Promoting governance, therefore, gels well with the AU’s 2020 theme, “Silencing the guns: creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development.”

The APRM Secretariat, under its CEO Professor Eddy Maloka, has forged stronger ties with the AU’s African Peace and Security Architecture and African Governance Architecture, and they work together on early warning systems for conflicts.

While the APRM is not the right tool for tackling hot conflicts, its thorough research has proven adept at identifying conflict fault lines, from xenophobia in South Africa to electoral violence in Kenya and Islamist threats in Mali and other Sahel states. If only these countries had heeded the warnings. The APRM cannot put out fires but can advise countries on where to place the firebreaks.

But the APRM doesn’t come cheap. According to figures in the 2018 APRM Continental Secretariat Report, the South African government contributed $10,7 million to the APRM between 2004 and 2018. The APRM’s total income in this period was $48,8 million, meaning that Pretoria footed almost 22 percent of the APRM’s hefty bill. In comparison, the next highest contributor was Nigeria ($5,6 million), followed by Algeria ($2,5 million) and Kenya ($2,1 million).

The numbers demonstrate the substantial investment that South Africa has made in the APRM, and by extension in promoting good governance.

However, the dynamics have changed and the APRM now receives the bulk of its budget directly from the AU as an “autonomous entity” and no longer relies on (usually tardy) country contributions.

One of the biggest disappointments of the APRM has been that the peers – the participating heads of state and government – have been too gentle with one another. The original vision of a robust, frank, gloves-off debate among presidents about problems in their countries and calling them to account for anti-democratic behaviour has proved elusive.

APRM Forum meetings seldom have more than a dozen of the 40 presidents attending, and the conversations are more congratulatory than critical.

Review reports are given too little time for interrogation by the peers.

Thus the APRM is in danger of becoming an expensive box-ticking exercise that generates long reports that no one ever reads.

South Africa should exert its influence to change the tone and tenor of these conversations. It should also work to speed up the public release of the reports, as stipulated in APRM rules.

The country has a perfect opportunity to lead by example. It has committed to undertake its second-generation review this year, some 13 years after the first review was conducted in 2007. Despite promises under the administration of President Jacob Zuma, this second review never materialised. Given the revelations about the extent of corruption and state capture under his tenure, it’s hardly surprising.

Ramaphosa has begun the arduous task of cleaning up the rot, repairing institutions and restoring confidence in South Africa once again.

Domestically, he could now use the APRM to spur and support his reform agenda, and link it more directly to South Africa’s national budget and its National Development Plan. The last time around, the APRM seemed to sink without a trace, and had little policy impact. This cannot happen again.

If South Africa conducts an open, participatory, credible and rigorous APRM process, that honestly describes and accepts past failures and seeks solutions, this will have a demonstration effect for its peers. If it is over-sensitive, obfuscating and stage-manages a superficial review process, this will give the green light for other states to have substandard APRM processes too.

Leading the APRM this year is an opportunity that the country cannot afford to squander. SAIIA

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