The election of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma 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 Southern African Development Community in an immense effort to overcome the resistance of powerful opponents such as Nigeria and Kenya.

Dlamini-Zuma will no doubt do a good job in tackling the ineptitude that paralyses the AU Commission, just as she has sorted out a lot of the problems in Home Affairs. She has already said she will focus on development issues and that is right.

But first she 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.

We have another important concern, too. There are indications that the SA government was inspired to put up a candidate against Ping because it felt that he had mishandled the crises in Ivory Coast and Libya last year, allowing himself to be manipulated by Western interests, especially France.

In both of those issues the countries which backed Ping against Dlamini-Zuma – notably Nigeria – took a tough line against the despot Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the undemocratic Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to vacate office after losing a presidential election.

SA, conversely, took a much more accommodating approach, which would probably have left these leaders in partial power.

SA purported to be acting in the interests of African autonomy, but it ended up appeasing undemocratic leaders.

It is good that, after 18 years of being coy, democratic SA is at last asserting its rightful place in African affairs. But not if that means using its muscle to shadow-box with phantom foreign enemies rather than tackling the despots who are the real cause of Africa’s woes.