What, really, does SA stand to gain from the election of Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as chairwoman of the AU Commission?
Other than the prestige of having a South African serve as a senior official on the continental body, the country will derive no direct benefit should she take over from Jean Ping.
Of course, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation would disagree and argue that South Africans should not be short-sighted and instead support the broader role Dlamini Zuma could play on the continent.
She would be the first woman in such a senior position in the AU and would do southern Africa proud by being the first person from the region to head the body, the departmental spin goes.
Dlamini Zuma’s election could obviously strengthen SA’s lobbying power in the AU, but she would not be there to represent this country or the region’s interests. She would be there to preside over the commission’s work in the interests of the entire continent.
And let’s face it, the AU does not have the type of international clout it was envisaged it would have when it was launched in 2002.
It is not the UN or the International Monetary Fund but a body with lofty objectives and little power to deal with Africa’s numerous problems.
But judging by the way President Jacob Zuma and the SA government are lobbying the region and the continent’s leaders, it would seem that Dlamini Zuma’s election next month would be the golden ticket to global domination and the solution to all of Africa’s problems.
They have now secured the firm support of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community for her candidacy and some of the region’s leaders are even financing lobbying ventures in other parts of the continent.
It is difficult to pinpoint Zuma’s leadership on any single issue in SA.
He relies on the ANC collective for major decisions, procrastinates when he is required to be decisive and defers management of key issues to his ministers. Yet on the issue of Dlamini Zuma’s election, the president is hands-on and really appears to be working hard to ensure that she trounces Ping, who has held the position since 2008.
It could not have escaped Zuma that if his ex-wife is thousands of kilometres away at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia, she would not be able to interfere with his bid to secure a second term as ANC president in Mangaung in December.
This is not just because some structures of the ANC are desperate to find a worthy candidate to run against him and Dlamini Zuma is senior enough to fit the bill. The situation is a little more complicated.
The biggest asset for Zuma in his second-term bid is the unanimous support of KwaZulu-Natal, the province that will have the highest representation of delegates at the ANC conference. However, if there is one person who could tamper with that support, it is Dlamini Zuma – if she wanted to.
She is extremely popular in the province and, despite her demanding portfolio, maintains a regular relationship with her home base.
If Zuma suddenly became unavailable for the position for whatever reason, or if party structures decided to negotiate a compromise to prevent another face-off so soon after the Polokwane showdown, Dlamini Zuma would be the ideal candidate for the province to rally behind.
She has all the Struggle credentials, the seniority, a formidable constituency, the experience for the position and has excelled in every cabinet position she has served in.
Her election to a senior position in the ANC would also give weight to the party’s policies on gender representation in its highest ranks.
However, it would be unlikely that two Zumas could end up on the same slate for the top six of the ANC. It would have to be one or the other.
A “Zuma versus Dlamini Zuma” battle is not that far-fetched – and should it happen, it would split KwaZulu-Natal and several other structures that are at present firmly behind Zuma, such as the ANC Women’s League.
Let’s not forget that Dlamini Zuma was on the Thabo Mbeki slate at Polokwane as that faction’s candidate for deputy president. She lost to Kgalema Motlanthe, not because she was unpopular but because she was on the wrong slate. Delegates voted in blocs for all the positions on the top six, no matter who the candidates were.
The fact that Dlamini Zuma stood against her ex-husband and father of her children in a fierce power battle is testament to the fact that she is her own person, who does not make decisions according to sentiment. She has long recovered from the bitterness of the divorce and, apart from parenting issues of their four daughters, she relates to Zuma just like any other ANC minister in cabinet.
Dlamini Zuma and Mbeki enjoyed a close working relationship based on trust and appreciation for each other’s skills. As foreign affairs minister, she shared Mbeki’s same passion for Africa’s development and they were a strong team in international relations and at multilateral meetings.
At Polokwane, she had the courage to side with whom she thought would be the better president, no matter how awkward the situation was for her family. It was a gamble that backfired badly for her and since then Dlamini Zuma has stayed out of ANC skirmishes, focusing most of her attention on her government portfolio. The evidence of this is plain to see in the noticeable improvement in the functioning and performance of the Home Affairs Department since she became its minister.
So far, Dlamini Zuma has not signalled any intention to contest any of the top six positions at Mangaung.
In fact, she appears to want to get away from the infighting and crossfire in the ANC, and genuinely seems to want the AU position.
However, if she does not get the AU job, it would be a travesty for her not to be in the running for ANC top six.
She will therefore be lobbied by all the camps opposing Zuma’s second-term bid.
As candidate for deputy president with Motlanthe at the top of the ticket, Dlamini Zuma would pose a very real problem for Zuma. This is especially the case now that supporters of sacked police commissioner Bheki Cele in KwaZulu-Natal are questioning Zuma’s leadership and could begin lobbying against him – if they found an ideal candidate from KwaZulu-Natal behind whom to throw their weight.
As was evident from Cele’s appearance in the Durban Magistrate’s Court recently, to support members of the Cato Manor organised crime unit facing murder charges, neither he nor his supporters care much about keeping up appearances when bigger political wars are at play. Cele is aggrieved about Zuma’s decision to fire him and could use his substantial influence in the province to lobby for another candidate, especially one with strong roots in the province.
If Motlanthe decides he doesn’t have the stomach to face off against Zuma, Dlamini Zuma would be a more popular candidate to challenge Zuma than Tokyo Sexwale could ever hope to be. She does not have Sexwale’s baggage as being representative of business interests and using money to lobby and campaign.
Dlamini Zuma could even gain the support of Cosatu, which is still without a candidate.
She would be much easier to sell to ANC structures than Sexwale or any other person hoping to enter the race at the last minute as the “Anything But Zuma” candidate.
With Motlanthe being unwilling to show his hand, she could also draw sections of the ANC Youth League to her side.
In a few days, the AU will meet in Addis Ababa and the 54 African nations will vote for the new chairperson. If Dlamini Zuma is elected, it will be a great PR coup for the SA government and a great loss to the country because one of the best performers in the cabinet would be gone. If she loses, the journey to Mangaung could take on a fascinating new dimension. It would be the president’s biggest nightmare.
l This first appeared in the Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za or @dailymaverick for more