Dlamini-Zuma has been one of South Africa’s best politicians and her election as AU leader is good news for the continent.
South African politicians have been falling over themselves to congratulate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the country’s home affairs minister, after she won the elections to lead the African Union this week (15th of July 2012). But there is no doubt that for many here this is a bitter-sweet victory, one that leaves a sense of loss at the departure of one of government’s best-performing politicians.
Dlamini-Zuma has held cabinet positions since 1994, when she was health minister in Nelson Mandela’s government. She became chief proponent of Thabo Mbeki’s African renaissance push from 1999 as foreign affairs minister – though her record was blighted by South Africa’s failures on resolving the Zimbabwe problem.
But in 2009, when she was appointed home affairs minister, she become a darling of the country and turned a corrupt and constantly derided department into one of the country’s most efficient. South African passports, which were were easily forged and regularly falling into the hands of al-Qaida and organised crime syndicates, which led to the United Kingdom imposing a massive visa fee and stringent vetting system for South African visitors.
Waiting times for identification documents and passports have now been drastically reduced. In a country where government corruption and incompetence is perceived to be on the rise, this is the one ministry that has demonstrably moved the other way.
In that sense, in a country that needs “can-do” politicians, Dlamini-Zuma’s departure is a major loss. But for the continent her appointment could lead to greater co-operation and ability to speak with one voice.
During her tenure as foreign minister she interacted with the world’s leaders at a time when the continent was the focus of campaigns to scrap developing world debt and permanently remove the stigma of what the Economist once called a “hopeless continent”. With Mbeki as the main proponent of a New Deal for Africa, she was the nuts and bolts woman, the one who got the paperwork signed, sealed and delivered behind the scenes.
This deal-making, in which she forged alliances with the Nordic countries, signed deals with Tony Blair’s Labour government and struck agreements with the Bretton Woods institutions, will stand her in good stead when she moves to the gargantuan, Chinese-built AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Her in-tray will be full. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau are on the boil. An African-led international peacekeeping force is already set to intervene in the DRC, and the other two need urgent and skilful attention.
The AU’s predecessor – the Organisation of African Unity – had a reputation as a protector of dictators. Dlamini-Zuma will have to forge a new reputation, one that has struggled to emerge, of an organisation that is principled in its defence of human rights and democracy. This will not be helped by the fact that the AU still accommodates the likes of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago, who was until January its chair despite having been accused of serious human rights abuses.
She also has to heal the major rifts between Anglophone and Francophone countries that have attended her election. South Africa has been accused of bullying smaller countries into backing her election and conducting a smear campaign against Gabon’s Jean Ping, the incumbent and the man she defeated. Further, three Anglophone powerhouses did not back Zuma – Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia – leading to tensions between the southern and west African blocs.
Dlamini-Zuma starts well, though. As she said in a speech after her election: “I made it clear that this was not about me or South Africa but should be seen as an achievement for the continent.”
Though questions have arisen on the continent about her marriage to President Zuma (they were divorced in 1998), it has not been an issue in South Africa, where the two have worked harmoniously together and there have been no questions about whether she is a “puppet” of the president. If anything, her diplomacy owes more to Mbeki than to Zuma.
Although South Africa is one of the world’s leaders in gender representation at national political level, and her election has been hailed as a milestone, on the rest of the continent attitudes are hard to change, and she may encounter problems.
At home the big question has been whether there is much upside in all this for the country. There is. The position has largely been held by smaller countries, and the fact that the position goes to one of the continent’s powerhouses is expected to lead to both a higher profile for the AU and for South Africa.