Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma greeting AU Com Jean Ping. In the background is Mr. Abdoulie Janneh (Gambia) is the seventh Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)

The election of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as the new chairwoman of the AU Commission has been analysed from various perspectives.

Most commentators view it as a major achievement for SA’s reputation on the continent, but it is also regarded as a serious loss of ministerial capacity for the government.

Dlamini Zuma served in three ministries since 1994: Health, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. All three gave her valuable experience in matters of priority for the continent. It also gave her managerial and leadership experience urgently required in the AU Commission.

Moreover, Dlamini Zuma has never been compromised by accusations of corruption or maladministration. Powerful and vested interests have not intimidated her, as proven by her challenge of the main pharmaceutical companies regarding generic medicines. SA was not the only country to have benefited from this challenge.

As Minister of Home Affairs, she reduced corruption levels in the department, professionalised its service to citizens and modernised its internal processes. This is the type of leadership change that the commission and AU bureaucracy will have to undergo.

Home Affairs plays a very important role as the most critical contact point with citizens of other African countries living as refugees or asylum seekers in SA. The problems of inter-state migrations affect many African states, and Dlamini Zuma’s term as minister has exposed her to these dilemmas.

As minister of foreign affairs, Dlamini Zuma with president Thabo Mbeki, deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz Pahad and senior officials like deputy director-general Welile Nhlapo were the architects of SA foreign policy and relations.

She played a critical part in converting the conceptual basis of the Mbeki ideas into line-function, government programmes such as the African renaissance fund, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the African diaspora, the establishment of the AU and hosting of major UN conferences.

In her AU capacity, it is expected that she will not only to be a managerial success but that she will provide more prominent intellectual leadership to Africa as a concept – almost similar to the role of Jacques Delors in the European Commission in the 1990s.

Dlamini Zuma’s election has several implications. So far the commission chairpersons have originated from median or small states. Her election broke with this tradition. It is not only an AU tradition but also a UN tradition: secretaries-general were from Burma, Austria, Sweden, Ghana, Egypt, Peru, Norway and South Korea. The unknown consequence of Dlamini Zuma’s election is whether it has set a precedent that will irretrievably change dynamics within the AU.

Several commentators emphasised the divisive nature of the latest election. The continent is diverse in many respects: regionally, linguistically, religion, politically, etc. The AU is built on the pillars of the five regional economic communities – some of them overlap in formations, like the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa).

Although the final vote was 37:14 in favour of Dlamini Zuma, it is skewed by SADC support. If that is accounted for, the remainder would be 22:14 in her favour. Two Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) members are suspended and their presence would have changed it to 22:16. (Ecowas consists of 15 members and therefore it can be assumed that the majority of opposition came from this region). It means that Dlamini Zuma has to address reconciliation in the first instance between SADC and Ecowas. One of her priorities will have to be to integrate North Africa as a region more into Africa – especially given the new opportunities after the “Arab Spring”.

She will also have to manage unrealistically high expectations. Although the commission is the AU’s executive authority, it cannot be compared to the European Commission. It does not have the powers to play the same prominence and provide the same leadership. State sovereignty is still dominant and therefore the AU is not a federation but a loose confederation.

Expectations about Dlamini Zuma’s potential must therefore be tempered.

The AU organisational structure is dominated by the assembly (summit of heads of state and government). Its chairman is annually appointed on a rotational basis.

The commission’s longer term of office provides much more continuity but has not yet been used to that effect to enhance its role in the AU.

Peace and security remain priorities for the AU. Dealing with conflict is therefore shared between the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the commission. The AU PSC depends largely on the initiatives taken by regional organisations and therefore the commission has the potential to take the lead in the AU regarding peace and security matters. It is expected of Dlamini Zuma to be more pro-active, to be quicker with AU responses (consider the AU’s lack of clarity in the cases of both Libya and Côte d’Ivoire) and for the commission to be more assertive in using the powers and instruments of the Constitutive Act.

While regional economic communities are better designed to deal with economic matters, the AU does not have strong institutions to lead the new era of economic developments in Africa. Nepad is not designed for it; neither are the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank nor the Economic, Social and Cultural Council. None of them can be compared with the AU PSC in terms of powers and prominence. Under the guidance of Dlamini Zuma the AU Commission will have to develop leadership capacity in this regard.

The continental objectives of intra-Africa trade and free trade areas have been overtaken by economic partnership agreements, strategic partnerships and others.

Economic co-operation as a pan-African ideal has fallen behind these new dynamics of globalisation and therefore protecting and promoting African trade interests in the new context requires stronger leadership from the AU’s centre.

Much speculation is taking place about how SA might benefit from Dlamini Zuma’s new position. Does it create a new leadership role for SA? We have seen already accusations that SA “bullied” some states to vote for Dlamini Zuma.

SA’s leadership in Africa is not self-evident and is also challenged. It is dominant in SADC but not necessarily in the other regions.

Militarily, SA is not the most dominant force in Africa. Some other defence forces are more professional and have more experience.

In the next 15 years, some economies will overtake the SA in terms of GDP, mainly because of the growth in oil production and the fact that they have bigger populations and bigger domestic markets.

The SA economy might become smaller than the others, but it will be more diversified, technological and less dependent on commodity exports. Politically, SA’s position has been challenged in the past and several regional powers have emerged, such as Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Algeria and Angola.

It is unrealistic to expect that Dlamini Zuma’s election will provide SA with a new leadership role. It will depend much more on SA government leaders, the role of the SANDF in conflict and the sophistication of the economy. Its roles in global issues like climate change, international human rights and humanitarian law, and nuclear non-proliferation are equally important.

Given her experience, Dlamini-Zuma will be able to link the AU more effectively to these issues. And SA should receive some credit for it.

n Kotzé is head of Unisa’s Department of Political Sciences.