A highly anticipated election for the position of African Union Commission chairperson petered out into a stalemate after four rounds of voting failed to conclusively reveal a winner. But it wasn’t quite a damp squib. Quite the contrary, actually: the election served up all the drama of a World Cup semi-final. By KHADIJA PATEL and SIMON ALLISON.
When the final results of the election became known, home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is reported to have emerged jubilant from a holding room on the sidelines of the conference hall. She sang and danced with female delegates, celebrating what the South African delegates saw as a victory. Decorum has never really been our strong suit and nobody’s really going to begrudge us a little spontaneous song and dance on a Monday morning, but what exactly were the South Africans so happy about? To the untrained eye there was little to celebrate – delegates were no doubt channelling the energy of Bafana Bafana. It’s becoming an embarrassingly South African trait to celebrate defeat – only to be met with the reality of the rule book afterwards.
The election on Monday was certainly no show of SA’s diplomatic clout. Nor too was it a display of the leadership credentials this continent so desperately needs. We were not African leaders in Addis Ababa on Monday, we were frustrated bullies, too proud to concede defeat and disturbingly content to bring everyone else down with us.
The beauty of a secret vote is that you can’t tell who betrayed you. Funny thing that. Apparently, most African governments aren’t all that keen on a new South African hegemony. It’s almost certain some who had piously promised to support Dlamini-Zuma in the run-up to the election on Monday reneged on their promise.
The ugly truth is Dlamini-Zuma failed to win even a simple majority in any of the four rounds of voting. It was a stunning defeat, an absolute rejection of South Africa’s attempt to make Africa in its own image, and a humbling dose of reality for those in our government who had overestimated our influence on the continent. What makes it sting all the more is that the betrayal was personal. The votes were cast by the assembled heads of state themselves, most of whom Jacob Zuma had taken much time and trouble to lobby on his ex-wife’s behalf.
We simply did not see this coming.
South Africa oozed confidence in the run-up to the AU Commission chairperson election, with the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) saying repeatedly that it had done vigorous bookkeeping. They were confident their candidate was a sure thing. And Dirco had good reason to be confident too. Months of heavy diplomatic activity, strong-arming African governments was dedicated to pledging allegiance to the new South African hegemony. It must have been a costly exercise – visiting every AU state to implore them for their vote could not have been cheap. And yet the effort and attention this was given proves the desperation of the South African government to have Dlamini-Zuma lead the AU Commission.
It is a pity and a massive erosion in our ability to influence events on the continent. Gone are the dreams of South Africa leading pan-Africa development.
But there was no great victory for Dlamini-Zuma’s opponent either. Ping held a slender lead in three rounds of voting, but failed to secure the requisite two-thirds majority, forcing Dlamini-Zuma, under AU rules, to pull out, leaving Ping to face a fourth round on his own. But he still failed to muster the necessary votes. We made sure of that. Speaking to the media on Monday afternoon, Dirco minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said, “After four rounds of elections, the political message that has emerged is that African leaders want change. This is what we think is the outcome of the first round.”
Dirco denies it ordered its supporters to abstain in the final round, but judging from the celebrations in the South African camp, this was certainly a preferred outcome. If Dlamini-Zuma couldn’t win, then Ping shouldn’t be allowed to win either. If we can’t have the toy, then he shouldn’t either.
Not that Ping was particularly popular during his tenure. He was seen as shallow and soft, a quiet technocrat when Africa needed a strong leader. And not a very good technocrat at that: the AU is operating at about 50% capacity, unable to attract the people it needs to run it, unable to spend its full budget. This makes South Africa’s failure to install its own choice even more damning: African heads of states were prepared to stick with someone they disliked rather than accept a person the South Africans imposed on them. This was regardless of the fact that Dlamini-Zuma herself is far more qualified than Ping to lead an organisation like the AU commission, and far better-liked – and respected – in these capricious diplomatic circles.
Many believe that South Africa has been buoyed by the final result of the election because they succeeded in getting rid of Ping, rescuing the African Union Commission from the pocket of the French. Ping, of course, hails from French-speaking Gabon and it was the Francophone countries that were particularly unswayed by South Africa’s campaigning. There is more to this than a facile Anglo-Franco split. Nkoana-Mashabane said, “This election has defied that we should still be viewed in terms of whose former coloniser’s language we should follow. I think that leaders of the continent have shown that they want a strong organisation irrespective of influence from former colonisers.”
And while language may have played some role in uniting states in support of Ping, there is little doubt that gender – and attitudes to women – affected Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy. Nkoana-Mashabane herself acknowledged the role gender may have contributed to the final result. “I think what went right is that we fielded a woman candidate from South Africa, and one of our very very best. And for the first time since 1963 to date, we have never gone to a round where a female candidate has gotten so far, with all the patriarchy and all the other impediments you know too well about. I think we should feel very proud of this and this is very good for South Africa,” she said.
As women’s political participation in Africa rises, Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy has now cast fresh light on the challenges facing female politicians on the continent.
There is little doubt South Africa made many mistakes in the approach to the AU Commission’s top job. The likes of Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt ought to have consulted before we hatched our grand plan to take over the commission and we should have been more astute in our lobbying. But there was no faulting South Africa’s choice of candidate – she was a capable woman who would have been a credit to the AU Commission. Nkoana-Mashabane quite rightly emphasised the need to “capacitate” the African Union, and Dlamini-Zuma would have been the best person for the job. “I think the message that is coming out, that I want to emphasise is that leaders are saying, the time has come and the time is now to capacitate this African Union, to strengthen it, but that that must come and must come now,” she said.
For now however, that change has been put on hold. And as much as the African Union is meant to glorify the unity of Africans, this election has proven how difficult it is to create a sense of “Africaness” that straddles language, nation states and bumbling politics. Past AU summits have been organised around the theme of “shared values” – among them good governance, the rule of law, democracy and human rights, but even then diplomats have asked, “Whose values are they anyway?” The European Union presents a good example for the AU in dealing with these challenges, but we know too well that there is often nothing so annoying as a good example. The AU’s relevance and prominence on the international stage is growing and member states will now organise themselves better to contest power over the organisation.
It’s little wonder then that South Africa is now giving increasing prominence to SADC, the bloc of Southern African counties. You see, it’s not South Africa that wants the rule of the AU Commission, it’s the SADC countries who feel they have never had a chance to lead either the AU or its predecessor, the OAU – or so says, Nkoana- Mashabane. “Following the rules of procedure and the fact that since 1963 SADC was never given the opportunity to lead this organisation, we will wait to consult with all SADC leaders because the discussions on other issues, which we came here for, still has to proceed.
“We will consult but we strongly feel that from the informal discussions we have been having, SADC will field a candidate because we have never been given an opportunity to lead this organisation,” she told the media.
And it is perhaps this regional rivalry that most jeopardised Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy. As well as being a race between Dlamini-Zuma and Ping, this was also a race between Ecowas, the West African bloc and SADC.
So what now for the African Union Commission? As per the regulations, the commission will be run by the Kenyan deputy commissioner Erastus Mwencha until new elections can be held in six months time, at the next summit in Malawi. It’s still unclear whether Dlamini-Zuma and Ping will be eligible to run in these elections; the South Africans insist Dlamini-Zuma ought to be allowed to run. Either way, it will be six months before the reform that the commission so desperately needs can even be contemplated – six months in which the commission will be more powerless than ever before.
And it won’t be a quiet six months for Africa, if such a thing even exists. All over the continent, African issues are requiring a coordinated, thought-out and meaningful African response: the ongoing invasion of Somalia, the disintegration of relations between the two Sudans, the impending famine in the Sahel, Nigeria’s volatile security issues, Cote D’Ivoire’s tentative recovery, possible Zimbabwean elections, the shaky Madagascar peace process, Swaziland’s bankruptcy. The AU’s ability to deal with all these problems is severely undermined by its inability to choose a leader for its secretariat, as is South Africa’s ability to act unilaterally; we’ve blown too much of our hard-won diplomatic capital in this stubborn attempt to take control of the AU. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma looks on as she leaves the African Union (AU) building in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2012. REUTERS/Noor Khamis
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall