Could Dlamini-Zuma be another Mbeki?

2017-01-30 10:58
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma speaking during a press conference as head of the African Union (AU) Commission. (Simon Maina, AFP)

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma speaking during a press conference as head of the African Union (AU) Commission. (Simon Maina, AFP)

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If another Thabo Mbeki is what South Africa needs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma could be it. She’s hardworking, stubborn, educated, aloof, and she follows her mind rather than popular opinion. As an added benefit she – in the eyes of many South Africans at least – carries the promise of an African Renaissance Part II, picking up where Mbeki’s African revival project floundered post-2008 when he was booted from the presidency.

How NDZ could become president

There is no question anymore that Dlamini-Zuma wants to be South Africa’s top boss. Her replacement at the AU will most likely be elected this week, and she will move back home from Addis Ababa in April after a three-month handover.

The ANC Women’s League already said it backs her for president. At the AU’s Kigali summit in July she told this journalist her fate was with the ANC’s branches – so there’s no way she’d say no.

Already her speeches to audiences back home – on African issues, but delivered in a presidential tone – is an indication that she wants it. She’s not the most rousing of speakers, but her speeches have substance. 

On Tuesday night last week, there was a dinner at the end of an AU gender summit, which at the same time paid tribute to struggle stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and turned into a Dlamini-Zuma campaign launch of sorts. Her lobbyists from the women’s league were all there, and Dlamini-Zuma spoke from the heart.

She thanked the African gender lobby for their support in 2012 after a bruising battle for the AU post. 

“It was the first time that they looked for those qualities (of an AU leader) and found them in a woman.

“It is not because there are no women, but they (presumably referring to male African leaders) had never looked.

“Our being here will make it easy now that they know a woman can take this position anytime, so well done,” she said. She singled out the women’s league for their support.

The presidential race back home could well have been in the back of her mind when she said this.
She will not be her ex-husband

Dlamini-Zuma, a medical doctor with almost 23 years of experience in government and continental institutional structures, is not her former husband – a populist with very little formal education and an operator who functions better outside formal governance structures.

For almost a decade she worked under the leadership of Mbeki, seven years longer than with Zuma. At the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane congress she defected from Zuma’s winning slate to Mbeki’s losing one at the last minute, so there’s no blind loyalty to her ex.

Still, she carries the Zuma double barrel like a heavy burden, and she shares four children with him – which amounts to a deep personal connection. She is also benefitting from his extensive network of ANC campaigners, which currently gives her the edge over the other presidential contenders. 

Dlamini-Zuma is, however, carefully crafting her own narrative as a torch-bearer for women and a pan-Africanist.

ANC members lapped up the latter eagerly: in December 2012, six months after her AU posting, she emerged as the national executive committee member with the most votes – more than any of the top six, pointing to support across the slates.

This magic has since waned a bit, but if Dlamini-Zuma could manage to shore up the same enthusiasm, she could just be the reconciler the ANC needs.

But can she reconcile the nation?

It’s somewhat unclear whether she could play that role outside the party. 

After her 2012 elections to AU Commission chairperson, the continent was split mainly along anglophone and francophone lines. Four years later those divisions remain. Dlamini-Zuma herself hasn’t made much effort to speak French when addressing summits, which didn’t go down well with that bloc.

It’s possible that she holds the view that there’s a coordinated effort from France to undermine the AU – the kind of conspiracy theory that Mbeki would have been proud of.

It’s also under her leadership that strict limits were slapped on the number of Western diplomats and non-governmental organisations attending AU summits. There were initial rumblings of discontent from these circles, but diplomats in private conversations say they understand her reasoning. Too many sideline meetings with foreign diplomats keep delegates from actual AU sessions where they should be doing the important work.

The same diplomats have also seen her short-tempered. After a disagreement over lunch at the AU summit in Johannesburg in 2015 she refused to talk to members of the British delegation, and awkwardly continued eating in silence with them.

She's also not much of a media darling, having consented to very few interviews during her AU tenure – although she has, at every summit, religiously made time to speak to South African journalists.

No ambulance chaser

Dlamini-Zuma has often been accused – rightly or wrongly – of not reacting fast enough to crises like the Ebola outbreak, and conflicts on the continent. She prefers conflict-prevention through development – boosting agriculture and improving women’s lives for instance – rather than rush around to put out fires. There is no instant gratification in this approach.

It was under the tenure of Dlamini-Zuma as minister that the Department of Home Affairs got a more user-friendly face, and that systems were streamlined to make applying for documents easier and quicker. She left the portfolio after only three years, but took her zeal for getting the system to work better with her.

In her four years at the AU, the continental body adopted a fifty-year plan, Agenda 2063.
Although a lot of long-term political will is needed to make this work, Dlamini-Zuma successfully championed the plan right up to the United Nations, where it slotted in with the world body’s Sustainable Development Goals last year amidst much praise.

Under her tenure the concept of the African passport was adopted – she’s been preaching free movement of Africans across a continental free trade area – after many years of meetings, a model for the AU to be funded mainly by members was agreed on.

It was also she who appointed Rwandan president Paul Kagame to work out an AU reform plan. Dlamini-Zuma achieved some successes with her gender agenda, such as the campaign to end child marriage across the continent, and also opened an AU Leadership Academy to produce the next Nelson Mandela or Wangari Maathai.

Where she failed 

There were also a few projects that started off big but seemed to have lost steam. The AU Foundation was founded in 2015 to help raise money for the AU from big businessmen in the continent, but after a few side events at summits and a golf day at the Johannesburg summit, things have gone a little quiet. 

There was the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, which was set up in 2013 at the insistence of Zuma to stand in as the process of bringing about the African Standby Force and was a long and cumbersome one. But almost four years later, with the actual force being closer to operation, nobody really knows where ACIRC fits in. It hasn’t intervened in any crises either – the recent post-election situation in The Gambia was resolved using a regional force.

There was also the irony last year of having a human rights-themed summit, where leaders remained quiet on the abuses some of its members freely perpetrate domestically such as the suppression of free speech and laws against homosexuality.
Will she be good for the country?

Democratic Alliance insiders have let on that, with Dlamini-Zuma at the steer of the ANC, current polls show they will score at the ballot box in 2019. The country is too tired of the Zuma name, they say.

Dlamini-Zuma’s strategists have implied, without wanting to give away too much, that her campaign ahead of the ANC’s congress in December would focus on winning back votes lost to opposition parties. It would be heartening to know that the ANC’s focus could be moving outwards again.

- Carien du Plessis is a political journalist.

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