Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s election as chairwoman of the African Union (AU) Commission is as historic as it is significant. This is the first time that a Southern African and a female candidate has ascended to what is, by all accounts, one of the most influential roles in regional governance.
Dlamini-Zuma’s immediate challenge is to build and maintain confidence in the AU Commission’s institutions, processes and reputation. The view is widespread that under Jean Ping, issues such as the Libyan crisis could have been managed much better and that the commission could have been more efficient in marshalling and projecting its response to other regional and global crises.
Current issues on Dlamini-Zuma’s desk include, but are not limited to, the situation in Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of the continent that are grappling with entrenching peace and stability.
Dlamini-Zuma’s track record in turning around South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs — as the foreign affairs minister and in taking on global pharmaceutical companies, championing antismoking legislation and introducing community service for doctors — will stand her in good stead. Her record in delivery is second to none.
This is a victory not just for Dlamini-Zuma, but for Southern Africa at large. After all, she was not just a South African candidate but a candidate for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This is a triple first —— for SADC, South Africa and all African women.
For Africa, this is a big step forward. It will advance the African agenda at a global level. Gone are the days when Africa’s voice was marginal. Gone are the days when Africa’s agenda was peripheral. Gone are the days when divide-and-rule tactics by former colonial masters weakened Africa’s position on key global issues.
This is a victory for African unity when it is needed most.
Africa needs a common, shared and compelling vision of the future.
Dlamini-Zuma is very capable and well placed to ensure that Africa has its rightful and respectable place, which, dare I say, is as long overdue as it is strategically imperative in the current conjuncture of global economic and political forces.
The West must prepare itself to engage with Africa as an equal, not as an underdog as the case has largely been.
Some in the West were keen to frustrate Dlamini-Zuma’s chances because of her bold and independent mind. They have failed. They must now deal with her.
This is big victory for the African agenda at a global level.
It is not the first time that Southern Africa presented candidates for this role. Zambia and Namibia once did, but they failed for reasons that were not understandable to many. Dlamini-Zuma’s victory shows that SADC, as a whole, is more powerful, more effective and more formidable a force than the sum of its parts.
We now need to quicken the pace and depth of regional economic integration because we have seen what regionalism can unleash versus nationalism.
The unity of purpose demonstrated by SADC leaders was unprecedented. It vindicated the adage that “unity is strength”.
Dlamini-Zuma’s victory is also a vindication of the efficacy of President Jacob Zuma’s policy on Africa in particular and foreign policy in general.
A lot of sceptics have been very critical of Zuma’s foreign policy credentials and questioned his commitment to the African agenda. His strategy of engaging by delivering results rather than polemical and esoteric debates is being proven to be a great recipe for success.
A lot of analysts were bemoaning Pretoria’s decision to field Dlamini-Zuma because of the so-called unwritten rule that none of the big countries on the continent should contest that role.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Nigeria, the biggest country in demographic terms, once occupied the same role. The intellectual laziness that is becoming a hallmark of the local intellectual community can at times be shocking beyond belief for people in business and other parts of society not involved on a full-time basis with political analysis.
Dlamini-Zuma needs to be seen to be articulating and advancing a vision for a prosperous future for all Africans across the continent in ways that project a genuine concern for their plight and support for their dreams of a better life in modernised and functioning African societies rather than failed states.
There are three camps in Africa that Dlamini-Zuma will be confronted with.
The first is the camp that embraces South Africa as “one of our own”, with which we should deepen cooperation and trust. This is the camp of allies that needs to be safeguarded and constantly expanded.
This camp has widened beyond SADC to other parts of Africa. It needs to be continuously maintained and expanded to extend South Africa’s influence and reach.
The second camp comprises those that reject South Africa as the new imperialist that must be weakened or resisted.
Some sections of this camp also have foreign backers from countries in other parts of the western world, which stand to benefit from a divided Africa that cannot get its act together. This camp requires deeper analysis as it can be a threat to South Africa’s national interest and Africa policy objectives.
This is the hostile camp that needs to be converted into allies and crushed in other ways. This is the camp that will want Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure to be unsuccessful.
It should not be allowed to prevail.
The third camp comprises those that sit on the fence: Sometimes trustful, at other times distrustful of the new regional hegemon. This is the opportunity camp, as it is easier to convert into the first than the second camp. Most in this camp will now rally around Dlamini-Zuma and give her the support she needs to succeed in her task.
We need a strategy that will move most, if not all, Africans into the first camp.
This must be underpinned by an informed and robust understanding of the diversity of attitudes towards South Africa across different parts of the continent. It can and must be done.
South Africa’s private sector needs to play an active role in the country’s positive engagement with the rest of Africa.
More importantly, there needs to be an alignment between South Africa’s foreign policy and the strategies and activities of local flagship companies on the continent.
The most successful countries in the world tend to have a co-ordinated and aligned approach between their foreign policies and the commercial strategies and activities of flagship firms. We must too.
Africa is in a very unique position to craft its journey towards prosperity, global competitiveness and dominance independent of its former colonial masters.
Pretoria needs to leverage its uncontested economic leadership position to win hearts and minds, unite and lead the continent to prosperity and global competitiveness with humility and great effectiveness.
Kuseni Dlamini is a member of the national council of the South African Institute of International Affairs at Wits University. He writes in his own personal capacity.