Guest Column

OPINION: Is the United Nations still relevant to South Africa?

2019-10-29 06:01
President Cyril Ramaphosa with United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. (GCIS)

President Cyril Ramaphosa with United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. (GCIS)

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The UN contributed to the end of apartheid; its commitment to assist in ending extreme poverty in SA remains strong, writes Nardos Bekele-Thomas.

The United Nations' role in ending apartheid is well documented; what is less known is its relevance to a democratic South Africa. As the world this week marks the UN's 74th birthday amidst concerns over its ability to finance an ambitious development agenda, it is time for a sober reflection on why the global body is relevant to SA.

SA was a founding member of the UN in 1945 before it was suspended in 1974 due to its apartheid policy. It resumed full membership in 1994 and since then, it is no exaggeration that its sway within the organisation has grown by leaps and bounds. This year marks the third time SA is a member of the UN Security Council, a feat very few countries have enjoyed. Being a member of the council – representing Africa on two-year terms – has accorded SA the privilege of a coveted seat at the agenda-setting table where threats to global peace and security are discussed and decisions made.

Holding a seat on the council undoubtedly entails readiness to shoulder global responsibilities. And on many occasions, particularly on African issues, SA has done remarkably well, assuming responsibilities on issues ranging from peacemaking and peacekeeping to humanitarian intervention and economic help to neighbours. With more than 1 160 personnel serving in peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, SA is currently the eleventh biggest contributor in Africa to UN peacekeeping, and the 17th biggest in world.

SA's influence within the UN outspreads political and economic matters to include values and principles that former president Nelson Mandela stood for. For instance, his birthday (18 July) is now observed throughout the world thanks to his dedication to human rights. It was a first for the UN to recognise an individual's birthday as an international day.

Notable contributions to SA's democracy

As a strong believer in the UN, SA is an ardent supporter of multilateralism. Its foreign policy seeks to strengthen multilateralism and pursue dialogue through regional and global institutions, including the UN, the centre of diplomacy. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, "global challenges require global solutions," a recognition that global threats can only be confronted through dialogue and international cooperation.

The end of apartheid in SA did not mark the end of under-development for the historically marginalised but presented the country with an opportunity to define a new development path for itself. This new journey meant that the UN had to reconsider its own role in supporting these noble developmental objectives.

Over the years, the UN Development system can point notable contributions made to the development of the democratic state, ranging from support to the development of what is now a sophisticated legislative framework to direct programme implementation to strengthen delivery across various mandates.

The SA government is finalising its five-year programme, the Medium-Term Strategic Framework. Once concluded, the framework will guide the UN's programme in the country, a demonstration that the UN has no separate programme of its own in SA.

As we conclude our current programme in SA, this gives us an opportunity to reflect on some of the contributions of the UN over the past five years. Some notable examples include the work our agencies continue to do in support of SA's transition to a low carbon economy. Our lead programme in this area, the Partnership for Action on Green Economy, supports SA in reframing policies and practices around sustainability to foster economic growth, create jobs and reduce poverty and strengthen the ecological foundations of the economy.

Strengthening the social protection system

Other examples include our technical support to SA's recently concluded process of defining a national minimum wage. To this end, the UN worked with the government, employers and labour unions in pushing for a minimum wage for poorly-paid employees. We have also been intimately involved in supporting the goal of universal health coverage and working with the government in planning the National Health Insurance. Our work on health issues has seen major advances in strengthening SA's response to HIV/Aids working with several national partners.

We are working with government and other partners in the field of education in efforts to make the sector directly relevant to the SA's skills needs, while also supporting the government in addressing the scourge of gender-based violence and provide advice on agriculture, food security and nutrition. There is also ongoing work to strengthen the social protection system to cover vulnerable communities who may not be protected by the current framework and to cushion them from falling deeper into extreme poverty.

Several UN agencies continue to assist the government in supporting migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Most recently, we have been instrumental in repatriating dozens of families who were threatened by last month's violence against foreign nationals. Through our agencies we are working with the government on some of the most challenging issues facing SA today – the Fourth Industrial Revolution as well as crime and corruption.  

Still, it is important to note that the UN's assistance to member states is much more widespread and extends well beyond a cursory look at the size of its budget. Dozens of experts from different UN agencies work daily with their counterparts in SA government departments where they provide technical advice on specialized sectors including health, education, labour and information technology.

The UN's flagship reports and score cards allow countries to measure progress on how they are improving the lives of their citizens and to gauge how they compare with each other. As a source of data, UN's technical reports offer credible statistics and advice to policy makers and researchers.  

There are many other areas in which the UN and SA are working together to fight poverty, reduce inequality and end gender-based violence. The organisation is a partner in development in which members can take advantage of the assistance and opportunities it offers. The UN contributed to the end of apartheid; its commitment to assist in ending extreme poverty in SA remains strong.  

- Nardos Bekele-Thomas is the resident coordinator of the United Nations in South Africa.

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