Ten years of the African Union: let’s put on our sensible heels

Ten years of the African Union: let’s put on our sensible heels

On a typical Thursday morning at the office on the 5th of July I complimented a colleague on the beautiful outfit she was wearing.  For someone whom I have never seen wearing a high heeled shoe, on this day she adorned a ‘sensible’ heel that women wear to send a message that something interesting is either happening or about to happen in their lives. I soon learnt that this day was her 9th wedding anniversary. It was an occasion to reflect and celebrate her union.  It made sense then that she wanted to put her best foot forward perhaps as a nod to her young self, the young woman who made that commitment nine years earlier.

It is in this light that I began to wonder what outfits African leaders should adorn when they celebrate 10 years of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa today (9- 16 July 2012). Based on what we know of the AU since its transformation from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the AU July 9, 2002 in Durban, South Africa, what heels are suitable to adorn on such an occasion? What kind of nodding should we anticipate to the AU’s young self, optimism for the future or pessimism for another dreaded decade?

All relationships personal or otherwise are founded in a particular vision whether you call it a marital vow or mission statement. The AU was no different as mirrored in Thabo Mbeki’s declaration back in 2002 at the launch of the AU that “by forming the Union, the peoples of our continent have made the unequivocal statement that Africa must unite! We as Africans have a common and a shared destiny! Together, we must redefine this destiny for a better life for all the people of this continent.” Mbeki’s proclamation for unity was taking place at a time when the continent was still stitching itself from what [1]Tim Murithi calls a “decade of violence” that was characteristic of the 1990s. It was then in 2002 that the Inter-Congolese peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo finally seemed to be a possibility after the loss of an estimated 5 million Congolese. It was also in 2002 that the civil war that had begun in 1975 came to an end in Angola. But of course the people of Sudan, Liberia, Somalia, and Northern Uganda among others were still enduring civil wars.

As we reflect on the past ten years of the contribution of the AU, we can certainly nod with relief as [2]Jakkie Cilliers reminds us, that the greater involvement of the AU in crisis situations in the continent and the growth of regional bodies have positively resulted in less wars in Africa. Africa today is more peaceful than it was ten years ago. Liberia is not threatening to degenerate into another war; instead it has given us two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Ellen Johson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee. Ten years ago when the majority African states supported the formation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), they made possible that today Charles Taylor, who terrorised Liberians and contributed to the horrific violence in Sierra Leone, will pay the price as he has been sentenced to 50 years in prison by the ICC.

Today seven out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies experiencing 6% economic growth are in Africa, this was unthinkable ten years ago!  These include countries that have survived some of the continent’s most brutal civil wars such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, and DRC (others are Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania). In the little bit of travelling that I’ve done within the continent from busy Nairobi, Kigali, Maputo, Kampala, Khartoum to Gaborone I’m still struck by the massive construction that is taking place in these countries with massive buildings and roads. One feels that African people are moving forward, and at a very fast rate. Just the other day a former student noted with discomfort that Addis Ababa presents a puzzle for her when skyscraper buildings are situated next to shack settlements. Yet even she could note that these are some of the paradoxes of post war societies. These positive developments lead me to believe that perhaps on this Monday all of us Africans have some reason to put on our best shoes, high heels or otherwise.

However, I am not oblivious to the remaining challenges that continue to confront the continent.  For one the tale of positive economic growth in Africa sits uncomfortably with the reality that poverty in Africa is increasing and not decreasing as reflected in the UNDP’s 2010 “Assessing Progress in Africa toward the Millennium Development Goals” report. The only African country that has reached the goal of halving the number of those who live under a dollar a day is Ghana, while “[3]almost half of Africa’s 1 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day” (Awiti, 2012). Indeed Awiti posits that celebrating economic growth in Africa is both “premature and mischievous”.

As a woman living in South Africa I am acutely aware of my privilege as I write this article in a country where a woman has more chances of being raped than learning how to read and write[4]. This tragic reality that we see in a supposedly stable country like South Africa reminds me of the feminist cautiousness of the capacity of the state as a security provider. It bonds me with the woman in Congo, the noted rape capital of the world, for I am intensely aware that our definition of security must continue to transgress state centric discourses and privilege human security. For her, in a ‘fragile zone’, and I in ‘stable’ society are bonded by our chances to face the same horror. I am haunted by a poetic declaration by Funmi Olonisakin that a genuine attempt at peace and unity in Africa must “look at security from the spaces from which Africans are dying”.

So perhaps, like my colleague who dressed up to celebrate her wedding anniversary with sensible heels, African leaders and ordinary Africans should do the same on 9 July. Celebrate with sensible heels as we look back to move forward.


[1] Murithi, Tim. (2008). The African Union’s evolving role in peace operations: the African Union Mission in Burundi, the African Union Mission in Sudan and the AfricanUnion Mission in Somalia. African Security Review, Vol 17, Issue 1.

[2] Cillier, Jakkie. (2010) “Africa in 2025 emerging markets: exciting times as we follow emerging nations” in The African Magazine Issue 10 2010/11.  Institute for Security Studies

[3] Awiti, Alex. (2012). Africa: Foundation of Africa’s Economy Is Unstable. All Africa News. Accessed 4 July 2012.

Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

4 Responses to Ten years of the African Union: let’s put on our sensible heels

  1. Great piece Siphokazi. I really enjoyed reading it. I was so inspired just less that two weeks back, as I learnt through the history of the European Union. Although it took a world war for them to see the benefits of regional trade and unity, I left feeling such hope that maybe the AU too would get to where the EU is, and hopefully that unlike the EU, it won’t take a continental war, but that we will realise the power we have in a united Africa, and that perhaps we can use the internal spaces from which we are dying to create the ‘rebirth’ that Mbeki spoke about so much, and that we will finally use our wealth as the richest continent in the world (in terms of natural resources), not as a means of conflict, but progress, where all regardless of gender, race etc will be able to benefit equally. So I’m joining along, and putting on my sensible ‘heels’ along, as we celebrate this milestone (albeit the sometimes daunting challenges)!

  2. Thank you Gcobani and Bintou. Gcobani, your comment simply reminds me of what South African deputy minister of international relations and cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim speaking at Rhodes University in May that indeed after numerous false starts there is an increasing consensus that Africa’s time has come!

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