Has Zuma misread Africa's mood?

2012-01-26 00:00

A HOT story this week sees one of our own ministers caught up in a drama involving ambition, intrigue and possibly a measure of treachery on an international stage. On Monday, South Africa will find out if it has a new role to play in Africa and Minister of Home Affairs Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will know if she is to become the most powerful woman on the continent.

The African Union (AU) will meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on January 29 and January 30. The highlight of the meeting will be the election of a new head of the AU Commission. Current incumbent Jean Ping of Gabon was all set for a second term of office when he was caught by surprise by South Africa’s announcement that the ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma is in the running as a candidate for the post.

What does this mean and why should we bother? For starters, it says a lot about our president and his own ambition. Former president Thabo Mbeki was considered the master of international relations. However, Zuma has been quietly forging a way to make a bigger footprint for himself in Africa. Leaders like to leave a legacy. Whether this will be Zuma’s legacy that he, rather than Mbeki, enhanced South Africa’s role in African politics, is left to be seen.

Right now Africa matters. The World Economic Forum has recognised that the continent with its fast growth and burgeoning middle class is a force to be reckoned with in the global market. According to online news source, allAfrica.com, Zuma has made Africa a central focus of South Africa’s foreign policy. He is pushing hard for the establishment of a free trade area covering 27 countries in the southern African region to create a market with close to 600 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $1 trillion.

Ambition is one thing, but from events over the recent week, Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign is no walk in the park. Africa Report analysts Paul-Simon Handy and Stine Kjeldgaard of the South African Institute for Security Studies have questioned Zuma’s understanding of the continent’s current mood and whether South Africa is punching above its weight.

They argue that South Africa has presented most of its African partners with a fait accompli by announcing Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy, without consulting substantially. This, they add, has led to the perception that Pretoria has a hidden agenda and is trying to control the AU to boost its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

News reports over the past week point to the level of intrigue and some treachery in the AU leadership battle. Mandy Rossouw (City Press) writes that in French-speaking African countries Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy is resisted because there is an unspoken agreement that big African countries will not put up candidates for such a position because it would vest too much power in one country and that South Africa is also one of the chief funders of the AU.

Gabonese president Omar Bongo is apparently also lobbying hard for Ping to remain at the AU because if the popular Ping is defeated and returns to the country, he will be a threat to Bongo’s presidency.

Not surprisingly, Zimbabwe appears to be at the heart of the treachery in this campaign. All 15 southern African states are assumed to be behind Dlamini-Zuma, but there are indications that Zimbabwe could change its stance. Rossouw quotes European diplomats saying that AU chairperson Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea, is allegedly playing a double game. He is said to have pledged support to South Africa, but has been lobbying President Robert Mugabe and King Mswati of Swaziland to vote for Ping.

South Africa has been lobbying equally hard. Zuma is said to have called on just about every African head of state. So, too, has the lobbying team accompanying Dlamini-Zuma. They include ministers Siyabonga Cwele, Jeff Radebe, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. Rossouw writes that the team is lobbying in a style reminiscent of what was done before the ANC elective conference in Polokwane. They are allegedly telling countries to agree publicly to vote against Dlamini-Zuma, but to put their cross next to her name in the secret ballot. In this way Ping and his supporters would be caught off guard.

The team is also said to be picking on France as supporting Ping as a candidate, because he is considered more sympathetic to French investors. City Press reports that the French deny this and quotes European diplomats saying that the South Africans are busy setting up France as the bogeyman to blame if they don’t win the elections.

And what of Dlamini-Zuma, the woman at the centre of this drama? Reports in the African press have indicated that she does not appear as enthusiastic as her team. She has been less vocal and her heart does not seem to be in the race.

Whether this is the case is hard to say. Her head of communications, Ronnie Mamoepa, is not with her. He is in South Africa and attempts to get hold of her through the international relations communications team proved futile.

There is no doubt that Dlamini-Zuma, a medical doctor who grew up in Durban as the eldest child in a family of eight, is South Africa’s best candidate for the post. She is a former minister of Foreign Affairs and has been credited with successfully turning around the shambolic Department of Home Affairs. If elected her tenure will mean that she will have to spend the next five years at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. This could effectively take her off the radar in the ANC’s own leadership election due to take place in December.

Dlamini-Zuma is the woman who Mbeki saw as his successor. It is rumoured that so far in election lists doing the rounds she has been nominated for the position of deputy president by the anti-Zuma faction, while the pro-Zuma faction want her as the party’s national chairperson.

So far analysts are not holding up much hope for South Africa’s chances at the AU, citing the country’s bad foreign affairs track record in Africa, such as its flip-flopping over Libya. The AU has also been described as an old boys’ club that may not be ready to elect its first woman chairperson.

Tomorrow Dlamini-Zuma turns 63. Here’s wishing her whatever outcome on Monday that she truly wants. If elected, she will be a worthy representative of South Africa. If not, the campaign will not leave as large a dent on her image as that of her ex-husband, who may have to acknowledge that he misread Africa’s mood.

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