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Can Dlamini Zuma reform the African Union?

By Ralph Geeplay   
A decade after its creation, the African union (AU) this year took a bold step and chose a woman to lead the continental body in a much contested electoral process that saw the South African Home Affairs Minister elected to the top post.

Dlamini Zuma has her hands full because the African Union is not a government bureau as her past experiences suggest, and the level of work that needs to be done on the continent as far as leadership and vision are concern are huge. Vision and leadership has been lacking since 1963 when the forerunner to the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which the AU replaced came into effect.

Many believe Madame Dlamini Zuma has the credentials and the requisite attitude to make the AU relevant, which has ignited celebration across South Africa. Judging from the reaction and excitement from South Africans, you would think Mandela has just come out of retirement.

There have been marches in the streets, and various civic and political leaders including the Government of South Africa, let it be known that they take pride in a South African heading the continental body. Zuma, however, had to remind the ANC Women’s League that she was elected to serve the whole of Africa and not just her country.

“When I go [and] work, I’ll be working as a servant of Africans, and not South Africa. As South Africa, we have to locate ourselves in that pan-Africanism, and not just narrow self-interest,” she said.

There are speculations that Pretoria wants to use the powerful AU post to position itself globally; especially to have a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

In many respects you want to empathize with South Africa’s reaction. In truth, they have been cut off from the rest of Africa for most of its history until recently.

Always led by an apartheid government that neither care what Africans and the world thought of its leadership as it held complete control over the political and economic life of the nation, South Africa, the continent’s most wealthy and powerful country made it known it wanted the AU position, and it made sure it got it.

But there is a lot of work that needs to be done, and it remains to be seen if the former Home Affairs Minister can reform the African Union. Zuma, as AU chair will seek to develop the African Union’s internal structures and its governance process, as economic activity on the continent are showing signs of promise, say analysts.

In recent years, however, the AU has grown considerably divisive. The mean fight that brought Zuma to power in which Nigeria led an influential bloc to thwart what was seen as South Africa’s ambitious power play, is considered one of those trivial squabbles that have often held back the continent, whose peoples are dirt poor.

African leaders finally realized that such petty politicking needed to be tabled. Zuma’s mandate set by the heads of state of governments, include aligning the continent to an inter African trade, the development of infrastructure, the responsible exploitation of raw materials, climate change, and the resolution of numerous conflicts on the continent.  Interestingly though, the AU is broke and it seems the only fully functioning African institution today is the Tunis-based African Development Bank (ADB).

Since the AU took over from the organization of African unity (OAU), it still has not found it foot economically,  and according to reports is inept. Simon Allison, who follows African politics, and writes for the Daily Maverick have mentioned that “Funding remains a huge problem. More than half ($160m) of its budget of $275m for 2012 is paid for by external partners, mostly the European Union. An audit of the commission finalized in 2007 recommended vast reforms, but little of this has been implemented by Dlamini Zuma’s predecessor,” Jean Ping. The former AU chair has been accused for being ineffective, one reason some wanted him to go.

Also important to note is the fact that only 52% of the AU senior and junior level posts are filled and “the average under spending is [currently] 37%”,  noted Allison.

Zuma has a unique opportunity to chart a new course for the continent and bring credibility to the African Union by providing the leadership some have said she brought to health, foreign affairs and the home ministries in her native South Africa. But Zuma cannot be left off the hook all together, according to observers.

As South African foreign minister under Mbeki, it was on her watch that the Zimbabwe situation worsened while comrade Bob and his ZANU-PF terrorized its own people. Mediation efforts under South Africa’s leadership stalled and little answers provided while the political opposition and innocent citizens went to prisons, and a controversial land reform striped the nation of its ‘bread basket’ reputation.

It is one reason Africans have been skeptical about a South African leadership role on the continent in the first place, because its answers to the Zimbabwean, Ivorian and Libyan conflicts etc, because it is more than preserving the status quo. But Zuma’s election raised hopes and that her selection was in the right direction.

At the South African parliament building this week, the upper and lower houses gathered enthusiastically to bid the 63- year old diplomat a fond send-off, while heaping praises on her service as she takes on the all important African Union post.

President Jacob Zuma led the chorus, according to reports. “She will be sorely missed in the country,” he said, “but we know that we shall feel and hear her footsteps in Addis Ababa.” The South African President whose relentlessness and lobbying efforts saw his ex-wife elected to the top job added, “We pursued the issue of her election because Africa needs someone who would take the African Union and its operations to another level.”

Awaiting her immediate attention are trouble spots in Somalia, Mali, the Congo, and the ever-troubling Uganda and its eccentric rebel leader Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army. These crises will no doubt test her grit. And then there are Africa’s growing ties with China, the United States, and Western Europe’s determination to keep their foothold on a continent rich in mineral resources from which its peoples have seen little dividends.

Consistently, Zuma has said she will take her new position to serve Africa and its interests seriously, a message she have told again and again whenever she is presented the chance to speak in public since her preferment.

At the parliament building when South African lawmakers wish her good health in her new post, she said, “I cry when I’m happy, I cry when I’m sad, and today I’m both.” In the coming years Africa will need the tears and hard work, because the continent is in dire straits.

Ralph Geeplay can be reached at


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