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THE election of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as the first woman and first southern African to chair the African Union Commission has rightly been hailed as a triumph of South African diplomacy.
Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane did a great job against the odds, marshalling the SA government and the Southern African Development Community in an immense effort to overcome the resistance of powerful opponents such as Nigeria and Kenya.
Dlamini Zuma, who has managed to sort out many problems in Home Affairs, will no doubt do a good job tackling the ineptitude which paralyses the AU Commission.
She has already said she will focus on development issues and that is right. The AU has many development initiatives and plans which gather dust in files, never seeing the light of day and implementation is a priority.
Even before that, though, Dlamini Zuma will have to mend the deep divisions which her bitter contest against the incumbent, Gabon’s Jean Ping, has opened up on the continent, especially with Nigeria.
There are indications that the South African government was inspired to put up a candidate against Ping because it felt that he had mishandled the major crises in Ivory Coast and Libya last year, allowing himself to be manipulated by Western interests, especially France. In both of those situations the countries which backed Ping against Dlamini Zuma – notably Nigeria – took a tough line against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo who refused to vacate office after losing the presidential election. The South African government, anxious to find African solutions to African problems, took a much more nuanced approach, based partly on power-sharing.
Dlamini Zuma takes office at a troubled time, with Mali, Madagascar and Equatorial Guinea suspended from the AU because of coups, and major changes elsewhere on the continent. But it is also a time when economic growth in Africa is outstripping that of most richer countries. One of her challenges will be to help make sure that Africa’s peoples are the main beneficiaries of that growth.