President Jacob Zuma of South Africa praised the AU in a statement Saturday, saying the organization was a force for freedom and the economic emancipation of all African people.

“The (Organization of African Unity) therefore created a mechanism for the African intelligentsia and those at the forefront of the struggle against colonialism to coordinate and intensify their cooperation to emancipate the continent from colonial subjugation,” the statement said. “The OAU thus provided a sense of purpose for the African people to restore their freedom, dignity and to strive for a better life for all Africans.”

The 53-member AU has been trying to emerge as a force for stability on a continent regularly troubled by violence, conflicts and coups. As the AU strives to make peaceful transfers of power across Africa the norm, it often sanctions coup leaders and suspends membership of states. But it also often fails to mobilize resources to enforce its decisions, the reason some activist groups want to see more robust action from the organization. This week a coalition of over 120 civil society groups from across Africa and the Middle East issued a warning about conflicts in Sudan, urging the AU to support a bolder approach to peace there.

The organization is still a long way from its founders’ dream of a united Africa. South Africa is an economic power, while citizens in countries like Somalia, Sudan, Congo and Chad suffer from warfare and poverty. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is currently in the grips of bloody violence orchestrated by a radical Islamic sect that threatens to divide the country.

But the continent also boasts nine of the world’s 15 fastest growing economies and remains attractive to Western and emerging powers looking for natural resources. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa says Africa’s medium-term growth prospects remain strong, at 4.8 percent in 2013 and a projected 5.1 percent in 2014. The construction costs of the new building in Addis Ababa where celebrations are taking place were paid by China, whose growing economic footprint in Africa has been a cause for concern in the West. The visit to Ethiopia is Kerry’s first trip to Africa as U.S. secretary of state.

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