The election of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the position of Chairperson of the African Union Commission is significant in a number of ways: she is the first woman to hold the position; the first South African to do so; and only the second politician from one of the big African states to be chosen.
Dr Dlamini-Zuma was born in Natal province in 1949. She obtained a Bachelor of Science degree before leaving the country and going into exile in the United Kingdom, where she qualified as a medical doctor at the University of Bristol. In 1982, while working in Swaziland, she married fellow ANC activist Jacob Zuma, who is now President of South Africa. The couple divorced in 1998. Dr Dlamini-Zuma served as minister of health in the first government after the 1994 elections, and in other ministries under all South Africa’s post-apartheid presidents.
She did not stand out as health minister, although she deserves some credit for helping to implement Nelson Mandela’s promise that free medical care would be available to all children under 15 years of age; and for an early focus on preventive medicine, such as vaccination and immunisation campaigns. Criticism can be made regarding her second cabinet posting, that of minister of foreign affairs. Here, too, she may be excused to some extent by having had to support the line of President Mbeki, but the fact remains that she did nothing significant to stop the descent of Zimbabwe into political and economic chaos under Robert Mugabe. Indeed, South Africa’s foreign policy has generally not taken a principled stand against dictators, coup leaders and the various despots who hang on to power in many African countries. Some commentators have wondered whether this tendency to tolerate anti-democratic regimes might manifest itself in Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure at the AU.
In 2009 President Zuma appointed his former wife to the ministry of home affairs, one of the country’s most important government departments, and one that had been badly affected by corruption and inefficiency. In the three years since then Dr Dlamini-Zuma, along with some dedicated senior officials, has made a noticeable difference; passports and other documents are issued quickly, staff are generally polite and efficient, and there is a more professional attitude. This may be significant in her new appointment, where she will be in charge of the large AU bureaucracy in Addis Ababa.
Over the years she has sometimes been mentioned as a possible contender for the Presidency of South Africa. Her seniority, her wide experience in government, and the fact the she is well-liked by most of the important factions within the ANC, would all seem to favour such an outcome. However, she has never indicated much serious interest – it is said that President Mbeki offered her the deputy-presidency in 2007, but that she declined the position.
Nevertheless, some people are of the opinion that she was nominated to the AU position precisely in order to remove her from the domestic political scene at a time when President Zuma faces a strong challenge to his continued leadership of the ANC. His ex-wife’s name has again been suggested as a potential candidate for a top position at the party’s conference in December, when it will choose its leadership team for the next five years. However, the most probable reason for her nomination is that she is simply a very suitable candidate, both on account of her wide field of experience and because she is a woman.
Since 1994 the ANC government has made a point of ensuring that women are well-represented in Parliament, as government ministers, as provincial premiers, and as mayors of cities and towns around the country. ‘Gender equity’ has been a key ANC policy, and one which it has implemented very consistently. Thus, once it had decided to contest the AU position, who better to put forward than a senior figure with 18 years’ experience across three ministries, who is also female?
Rightly or wrongly, the fact that a woman will shortly be occupying the highest administrative position in Africa is of great significance. Although it is perhaps too early to speak of a trend, we are certainly starting to see women assuming – or standing for – high office in different parts of the continent. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia became Africa’s first female head of state in 2005, and she was joined in this capacity by Joyce Banda of Malawi earlier this year. Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s elevation, while not entirely comparable with the post of head of state, nevertheless makes her the third woman to sit at the African political ‘high table’.
If the promotion of women was a key part of the South African government’s decision to put forward Dr Dlamini-Zuma, so was its determination that southern Africa should have an opportunity to lead the AU. So there is certainly a valid argument that one of the continent’s most significant regions, the countries that group under the banner of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, should have a chance to head the AU Commission.
At the same time, though, South Africa was not acting purely in the interests of the region: Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s appointment serves South Africa’s own interests on the world stage. The country was recently invited to join the BRIC group of countries, even though its economy is a small fraction of the size of the rest of the group – Brazil, Russia, India and China. South Africa is also the only African member of the G20. In other words, South Africa is increasingly seen, and sees itself, as a significant player on the world stage; and even, perhaps, the flag-bearer for Africa among the world’s leading powers.
With this understanding of its international role it is not surprising, then, that South Africa wishes to strengthen its position on the continent by proposing one of its own to head the AU Commission.
If Dr Dlamini-Zuma can make a success of her tenure at the AU headquarters, and especially if she can help to consolidate effective and accountable governance in parts of Africa where it is desperately needed – in other words, if she can help to rid Africa of its reputation as a continent of corrupt governments, unelected dictators, and fragile democracies – then, who knows, perhaps her country will indeed achieve its great ambition. More importantly, perhaps Africa’s people – whom she has pledged to serve in her new role – will enjoy the benefits.