SA’s in a spin over AU post

2012-02-04 10:33

We need to do some serious soul-searching if we want to avoid dancing to our own tune

It was one of those awkward moments in the grand ballroom of the posh Sheraton hotel in Addis Ababa.

Judith Sephuma was on stage and had everyone tapping their feet but no one had the guts to open the dancing.

Eventually Minister of International Relations Maite Nkoana-Mashabane took the first step – it was partly South Africa’s party, after all.

The government, in conjunction with the Ethiopians, was hosting a do for liberation movements and all the African bigwigs were invited.

Eventually the dance floor filled up, with President Jacob Zuma making the circle bigger, and everyone jived to Sephuma’s version of Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special.

But if the South Africans had looked around, they would have seen they were only ones there – except for their continental BFF, of course, president Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania.

Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan and Ethiopia’s president Meles Zenawi looked on with blank stares and left the party as soon as it was diplomatically possible.

Monday morning finally arrived and Team South Africa was tense as it gathered around one of the fake palm trees in the African Union (AU) headquarters built by the Chinese. This is where months of frantic lobbying came to an end. No resource – human or financial – had been spared to convince countries that Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was the new broom the AU needed.

The AU was due to choose a new chairperson for its commission based in Addis Ababa. The commission is the administrative arm of the AU, which deals with budgets and arranges meetings, but can also make crucial decisions in times of crisis. That is why South Africa wanted the job.

The AU has had a bad year, even according to United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. Its nose was bloodied when the United Nations (UN) simply ignored the continental organisation and went ahead to invade Libya while the African leaders were still trying to get together to have a meeting.

This had to end, the South Africans believed. So, armed with laminated pamphlets espousing Dlamini-Zuma’s virtues and including her CV, they set off to spread the gospel to the rest of Africa.

Dlamini-Zuma lost to incumbent Jean Ping, a politician from Gabon, and although the AU has now convened an ad hoc committee to decide whether they can run again at the end of June at the next summit in Lilongwe, Malawi, South Africa has to take a hard look at the facts.


It is significant that none of the other big countries in Africa – Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya – voted for Dlamini-Zuma.

The South Africans spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince Jonathan to give Dlamini-Zuma his vote, hoping this would encourage other west African countries to follow suit.

There was even a stage at which Senegal offered to help SA campaign, but in the end they gave up and fell in line with the rest of Francophone Africa in its support for Ping.

Countries did not necessarily vote for Ping because they thought he was better than Dlamini-Zuma. Some, like Kenya and Sudan, supported him because he gave the middle finger to the International Criminal Court, while others, like his home country Gabon, simply did not want him back in Libreville so they lobbied for him to stay put in Addis.

For the most part the pro-Ping votes were based on anti-South African sentiment.

The Nigerians were particularly upset by the way South Africa sent a ship to the Ivory Coast during the ­post-election strife there, as if they were preparing to support a war effort.

Libya voted against South Africa because the latter blocked the recognition of the national transitional council as the legitimate authority in that country.

It was clear no big country was going to hand South Africa even more power than it already had. In fact, they would do everything they could to curb South Africa’s influence.

According to voting tallies the whole of the southern region of the AU (all countries south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) voted for Dlamini-Zuma, but it was the least they could do – she was the candidate chosen by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

But even within the SADC, trust seems to be a rare commodity. Immediately after the vote in Addis Ababa, South African officials were wondering aloud whether the DRC actually put its cross next to Dlamini-Zuma. “It’s a secret ballot, you just never know,” one official lamented.

The South African spin machine went into overdrive following Dlamini-Zuma’s defeat. Officials told everyone who wanted to listen that the colonial beast had been slain, referring to Ping’s mooted reputation for being a pawn of the West.

They insisted this was the first battle in the war against neo-colonialism (the colonialists being the French, they say) and that South Africa would take up the challenge again if SADC gave the go-ahead.

What gets lost in this anti-colonialism rhetoric is the introspection needed to regroup and re-strategise. Why do other African countries despise us so much? Why do they think we are arrogant?

Why do they think our foreign policy decisions are a mishmash of misplaced ideology and thoughtless decisions? What do we do to change this?


If these questions are not answered, South Africa will have an uphill battle convincing the UN to give it a permanent seat on the Security Council. It will struggle to convince the world it is more than a mere token member of elite clubs like the Brics and the G20.

And then South Africa will look around and find itself alone on the dance floor again, dancing to a tune that no one wants to hear.

» Rossouw is Media24’s international correspondent 

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