So much lay behind Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s accession to the chair of the AU Commission in 2012, that it has not been clear whether she badly wanted the job herself.
But after serving two thirds of her term, which expires in July next year, the former cabinet minister may wonder if it was the best decision.
She impressed back home over the past week, addressing the Pan-African Cultural Congress in Sandton, among other events.
Well-quoted, she gave us an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with her against the backdrop of the ANC’s steady succession battles.
Yet back in Addis Ababa, where the commission is based, the picture is, perhaps, not as rosy.
Dlamini Zuma holds the post of one of Africa’s most important technocrats. She should be compared with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.
But African rivalries and suspicions about her abilities and the reasons why her former husband, Jacob Zuma, pushed so hard for her to get the job, have cast a shadow.
Dlamini Zuma may have been unsettled by the challenges at the AU.
Chief among these would, broadly, be satisfying the South African Development Community as it had put political muscle and cash into her campaign.
She would also have been the first woman and the first person from southern Africa to have been elected, amid hostility particularly from countries, such as Nigeria, that have no real affection for South Africa.
Although she was clear it was she, and not South Africa, who was seeking election, her South Africanness was expected to be a divisive factor.
She has been accused not only of frequently returning home on ANC business, but of surrounding herself with South Africans in Addis.
Her supporters say this should not be unusual. Any top manager would want their own people around them.
This criticism does feel like a sideshow compared to her rather more important work in managing the peace and security-building aspects of the job.
This is quite apart from the money stuff, because the commission Dlamini Zuma inherited from her Gabonese predecessor, Jean Ping, didn’t seem to know how to spend it.
It doesn’t seem she has got a grip on this yet either.
The job of the AU Commission is tough. It has a strictly African agenda, which means interventions from, say, the US, with its focus on Islamist rebels, or from France, with its profound military ties with the continent, are not easily accommodated.
Particularly, Nigeria would like to see the AU being free of Western interference, but the organisation is to some extent dependent on donors.
In spite of her entrenchment of reforms at Home Affairs, indicating a sure sense of how to move a moribund organisation forward, Dlamini Zuma is not seen as having turned the commission around yet.
Critical issues for her when she took the job included strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo that fed into Uganda, how to secure a viable government in Somalia and, tied to that, how to assist Kenya’s military in staving off al-Shabaab.
The apparent drive by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Africans would also dominate, along with a proposal that cases involving Africans be heard in Africa.
Dlamini Zuma quickly backed a call for deferrals, apparently seeking to bring the AU and the ICC closer together.
But that might also have been strategic, as she earned support from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, both of whom were in the court’s sights.
This set her up against the UN Security Council, concerned that the ICC needed no further undermining.
Fellow Africans, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, were also unimpressed.
And the tightrope gets longer.
There was a view, when Dlamini Zuma was voted in, that South Africa’s foreign policy would somehow dominate, especially with Zuma himself eager to have more of a multilateral influence.
There are certainly issues there. For instance, South Africa didn’t cover itself in glory in its two years on the UN Security Council, and there seemed to be a hope that a strong performance by Dlamini Zuma at the AU Commission would help restore confidence.
But she’s wedged in contradictions. Although she has emphasised that the AU believes peace and security lie ultimately with the UN Security Council, that’s come with a twist.
Her view is that it is because the Security Council was “sluggish” on African issues that Africa established its own peace and security architecture.
Yet she has since been compelled, partly through an inability on the part of the AU to solve Africa’s problems alone, to work closely with it.
Her record in international affairs was not always shiny.
She was, for instance, castigated in some quarters for failing to deal more convincingly with Zimbabwe when she was Thabo Mbeki’s foreign minister, and that theme prevailed at the UN.
Mbeki - who gave her a big push for deputy president before his fatal campaign at Polokwane - was decidedly unenthusiastic about her chairing the commission.
He intimated she would be out of her depth.
Dlamini Zuma would also have had to carry some of the sting of our lack of moral authority.
Her tenure began two months after Marikana, which was portrayed as state-sponsored violence.
Other events have troubled some members of the AU.
For instance, Dlamini Zuma’s seeming reluctance to step into the spotlight meant she dithered over Burundi earlier this month.
She has been more decisive about attempts to secure self-determination for the Saharawi from Morocco, which is in line with the South African government’s position.
Right now, back home, a belief that Zuma is threatened by his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, even in KwaZulu-Natal, may be strengthening a will to see her return to a position of power next year. Alternatively, Ramaphosa may decide to adopt her as his deputy.
Whichever, the presidency of the ANC will be up for grabs in December 2017, with Zuma’s second term ending in 2019 when Dlamini Zuma is 70. Zuma’s backers are believed to have ensured she won top spot in the 80-strong national executive committee at Mangaung in 2013. That’s the next place after the top six.
It can be said that Dlamini Zuma’s chips have yet to fall.
Pretoria News Weekend