from Africa in Transition

South Africa Seeks African Union Leadership

January 19, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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President Jacob Zuma’s administration has mounted a full-court diplomatic press for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy for the chairperson of the African Union Commission.  The commission, in effect, is the administrative arm of the African Union.  It implements AU policies and coordinates activities and meetings.  There are ten commissioners, and a chairperson is elected to a four year term.  The chairman does much to set the tone for the AU and has significant behind-the-scenes influence. Each member state has one vote, and election requires a two-thirds majority. Balloting will take place at the end of this month. The current chairman is Jean Ping from Gabon.  His predecessors were from Mali and Ivory Coast.

South African officials, led by the foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, have campaigned across the continent on behalf of Dlamini-Zuma, and President Zuma has spoken personally to almost every head of state, according to the media. The media notes that if Zuma gets a second presidential term, it will correspond closely to that of the next chairperson.  So, if Zuma wants to build South Africa’s influence in the AU, securing the position of chairperson now is a good time and a good way to do it.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is often described as politically the most powerful woman in South Africa.  She has roots in the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko and spent many years in exile during the struggle.  (She acquired degrees in health from the Universities of Bristol and Liverpool.)  She was minister of health under President Mandela and later foreign minister under Thabo Mbeki. She is at present minister of home affairs in the Zuma government. Accused by her critics of willingly playing the race card, she is known for an abrasive manner, and has been a strong advocate of South/South positions.  From 1972 to 1997, she was married to Jacob Zuma and together they had four children.

The incumbent chairperson, Jean Ping, is personally popular and has a good reputation at the AU.  Because the vote is on the basis of one state, one vote, Africa’s numerous small countries will have a major say, and within the AU the spirit of consensus is valued.  Despite the Zuma government’s active campaign of behalf of Dlamini-Zuma, it remains to be seen whether two-thirds of the AU membership will support a political figure so closely identified with the ANC and the economic giant of Africa.  But, if Dlamini-Zuma is not elected, it will be a significant setback for Jacob Zuma in the run-up to the 2012 ANC party convention that, in effect, will determine whether he remains party leader and president of South Africa.

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