The government communications system this week worked very hard to promote outgoing African Union Commission chairperson — and likely presidential contender — Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It set the stage, promoted the event and even conjured up an award to give her.
The dignitaries failed to show — every last one of the co-headliners, in what would have been read as a terrible snub in ordinary diplomacy. The stage was poorly managed, with production values terrible even for a government event. And Dlamini-Zuma turned out to be not so much an obvious candidate to run the country as just plain boring.
In a speech of just under an hour, broadcast live on SABC, Dlamini-Zuma counted the number of universities on the continent, counted the free trade zones on the continent, counted the number of internet exchange points on the continent, and reported that there were only “pockets of problems” with security across Africa, and that democracy was faring well.
Even as she was speaking news emerged that a South African soldier on a peacekeeping mission had been killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With the “continental” platform affording her the opportunity to pass over the critical but parochial issues of free tertiary education and land reform, she instead provided anodyne generalities, saying no African child should ever be denied an education for want of money, and that Africans should be helped to farm the land they control.
The event was billed as a “State of the Continent address”, which is a first for the African Union, though it was seemingly hastily arranged, with important role players only learning about it last week.
In the immediate run-up to and during the event itself the primary South African government account devoted 41 tweets to it, about half the amount of attention given to President Jacob Zuma’s recent Reconciliation Day address, during which the tent he was under attempted to go airborne.
The government communications team also announced that Communications Minister Faith Muthambi would present Dlamini-Zuma with a “humanitarian award for leadership”. At the last second Muthambi was replaced on the programme by Minerals Minister Mosebenzi Zwane. He never arrived. Nor did eThekwini metro mayor Zandile Gumede.
Though presented by a provincial functionary, the award was from Govchat, a three-month-old cellphone application that puts residents in touch with their ward councillors — and which forms part of the government communication system.
Govchat chief executive Eldrid Jordaan would not answer questions by phone and then did not answer specific questions by email. Instead he said the “inaugural” award to Dlamini-Zuma, which he confirmed was for humanitarian work, “recognises African leadership in bringing technology to citizens”.
Dlamini-Zuma had apparently brought technology to citizens because she championed the AU’s Agenda 2063 campaign, and that campaign mentions mobile technology.
If she is to become president of the ANC and then of South Africa, Dlamini-Zuma will depend not on a popular vote but on those of ANC delegates, who have proven peculiarly immune to public sentiment. In 2012, however, much the same was true when Dlamini-Zuma was in effect elected as AU Commission chair behind closed doors — yet the fierce lobbying by the South African government to get her the chair included a public relations component.
The election in January of her AU successor is again to be done by secret vote of heads of state, but at least one contender is again trying to court the public in the manner pioneered by Dlamini-Zuma. Ahead of a public debate last week agents of Kenyan foreign affairs head Amina Mohamed sought to create a social media push around her campaign.
It largely fizzled out.