Her election to the post of African Union commissioner has been hailed as a victory for South Africa, for SADC and for women, and her new position has been described as the most powerful in the AU. But analysts have warned of the dangers of overstating the role Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will play at the AU.
"There is a misconception as we embrace this national celebratory mood. We over-exaggerate," said Shadrack Gutto, professor of African Renaissance Studies at Unisa. "This is a SADC nominee … this is an elected person who is now the servant of all Africans."
Gutto said it was important to not create the expectation that Dlamini-Zuma's new role would position South Africa as some sort of "governer" of Africa. "She's not going there to push a South African agenda but an agreed agenda of the union," he said.
Thomas Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, agreed, saying it was necessary to distinguish between South Africa as a member of the AU and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, an official of the AU who happens to be a South African leader. "She will always be associated with South Africa but her persona, profile and existence is now as president of the AU Commission, and she has nothing to do with South Africa [in that role]," he said.
"If she does her job properly she won't be taking instruction from Pretoria, she'll take it from the membership of the organisation and the AU," he said.
Much has been made of Africa’s most immediate political crises in recent days – coups d’etat in Mali and Guinea-Bisau; defusing the growing tension between Sudan and South Sudan; and trying to find some solution to the ongoing instability in Somalia. But this won’t be the focus for Dlamini-Zuma when she takes on the role of AU Commission chair.
Decision-making at the AU falls on the heads of state ministers and diplomats who represent their countries at various AU forums. Dlamini-Zuma, who replaces Gabon’s Jean Ping, will become the high-powered civil servant who co-ordinates the meetings and implements their decisions, and she will be tasked with overhauling the AU’s gridlocked secretariat.
"She’ll assist people to develop agendas, determine internal resources and priorities, and be responsible for implementing resolutions taken by the leadership," said Paul Graham, executive director of the Institute for Democracy in Africa.
"It’s important that people understand that she's a servant of the members, and the peace and security council, and the leadership of the AU." And while rumours abound that her move from government to an administrative role half a continent away is part of a plot to remove her from running for high office at the ANC conference in Mangaung later this year, Graham said that the role is not without its perks. "Who knows anyone else at the AU apart from Ping? That's now going to her. It is a very significant role," he said.
The role will also give Dlamini-Zuma the chance to interact personally with 54 heads of state on the continent as well as international leaders. Graham said that one of the benefits of having Dlamini-Zuma as AU commissioner for South Africa would be to make the organisation, which is somewhat Francophone-dominated, not just in language but also in its method of operating, its culture and administration, more friendly to South African civil servants.
"How she thinks, operates, organises, manages stakeholders, are all imbued with a South African consciousness and it might well be that the commission becomes more friendly to South African civil servants and their way of doing things," said Graham.
Part of South Africa’s campaign to oust Ping has been predicated on the belief that he was an ineffectual AU commissioner. During her campaign, Dlamini-Zuma said she would make the AU a "more efficient and effective organisation" and she will now be called on to deliver.
The AU Commission is indeed in need of an overhaul. A scathing 2007 audit of the AU, chaired by former speaker of Parliament Frene Ginwala, uncovered massive underspending – of up to 90% – by some directorates and showed than only half of the tasks approved by the AU were implemented, and almost half of its posts were unfilled.
The commission has also struggled to establish its independence and many of administrators showing greater allegiance to their own countries than to the AU commissioner.
Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, said Dlamini-Zuma’s biggest short-term challenge will be to heal some of the divisions created during South Africa’s aggressive campaigning for the post. "This will be a particular challenge for her because her campaign was so divisive," he said Adebajo.
"The way South Africa got this post alienated and annoyed a lot of countries." Dlamini-Zuma would need to find ways to "make up" with Gabon, Nigeria and certain Francophone countries that did not support her bid and work to reassure people that she is not there to pursue a South African agenda but a Pan-African agenda, he added.
But trying to win the support of staff at the commission may be complicated by the fact that many worked closely with Ping … and liked him.
Given her history, Dlamini-Zuma may well be up to the task. A consumate technocrat, she’s credited with overhauling the once-crumbling department of home affairs and turning it into one of the country’s most service oriented. In an interview over the weekend, Dlamini-Zuma said she wants to "make a humble contribution to the African Union".