Africa, Politics

SA headed for stalemate over AU and has nothing up its sleeve

By Simon Allison 16 May 2012

Unless the South African government gets its head out of the sand over the next chairperson of the AU, there’ll be another stalemate in Lilongwe – and our already battered reputation will take another hammering. By SIMON ALLISON.

For the most part, South African foreign policy is sensible. There’s reason, a clear strategy and some measure of rationale underpinning the decisions and statements coming from the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) – even when we might not agree with it.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is especially not the case in what is perhaps South Africa’s highest-profile diplomatic gambit to date, the candidature of home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the position of chairwoman of the African Union Commission.

Dlamini-Zuma was nominated for the position by SADC against incumbent Jean Ping of Gabon. In the elections in January, Dlamini-Zuma failed to win even a simple majority in the first two rounds of voting. In a fit of pique, the SADC countries refused to endorse Ping either, even though, as rules dictate, he stood unopposed in the third round. This made it impossible for him to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority, and left the leadership of Africa’s most important continental institution in limbo. Bizarrely, the South African delegation in Addis Ababa and its supporters cheered what was at best a pyrrhic victory, a moment horribly reminiscent of Bafana Bafana’s misguided celebrations after failing to qualify for the African Cup of Nations.

Nominating Dlamini-Zuma came at quite a cost to South Africa. We’ve stirred up a lot of bad blood, with some of the other continental heavyweights, thanks to our blatant disregard of an unspoken but long-held gentlemen’s agreement that the job should be held by someone from one of Africa’s smaller, less significant countries. Dirco’s defence is that we were nominated by SADC and duty-bound to respect that.

This is responsibility-avoidance of the highest order. We all know who calls the shots in SADC. The regional body nominated Dlamini-Zuma because South Africa wanted it to happen.

In particular, relations with Nigeria are said to be tense. Nigeria feels aggrieved not only at the violation of the gentlemen’s agreement, but in the way South Africa broke it. Nigeria was not consulted beforehand. There was no attempt to build consensus until after the announcement of Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy, by which time it was too late. South Africa came across as an aggressive bully, trying to use our economic and political power to force through our own agenda.

Our stubborn approach did not stop with Dlamini-Zuma’s loss in Addis Ababa. In fact, campaigning on her behalf has intensified in the run-up to the next African Union summit where the whole thing will be done again. The only problem is that in the interim period, nothing has changed.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane tried to address this issue in a press conference on Tuesday. She is the public face of the campaign given Dlamini-Zuma’s reluctance to comment (perhaps, as rumoured, Dlamini-Zuma is not all that keen on leaving home affairs?), but filled none of the assembled press corps with confidence. Her account of a meeting in Cotonou, Benin, on Monday where Jacob Zuma and other heads of state attempted to thrash out a solution was vague and inconclusive. All we know is that “certain convergences emerged out of the meeting”, and a full report will be presented at the next summit.

The minister refused to elaborate on what would happen if another stalemate was reached at the summit in Lilongwe. “We will follow the rule book,” she said. By my reading, this means that if neither candidate can find support from two-thirds of the assembled heads of state, the decision will be deferred, yet again, until the next summit. Unless someone compromises, this game could go on for a long time.

No one wants this. Especially not the African Union, which has released statements saying that the leadership will be resolved in Lilongwe no matter what. And this is Dirco’s position, too; it has simply not thought about how to resolve the impasse. Dirco’s best hope is for Dlamini-Zuma to gain a slight majority in the first two rounds to force Ping to withdraw from the last round of voting. Perhaps the Ecowas countries won’t be as bloody-minded as SADC then and change their votes. Unless something changes between now and then, it’s a faint hope.

But the big unanswered question in all of this is why South Africa is pushing so hard for Dlamini-Zuma to take the position. Why has the position suddenly become the most valuable crown in South African foreign policy? Why are we prepared to spend all our diplomatic capital and alienate other major African countries for this, especially when success is far from guaranteed?

No one seems to know the answer to this question. Dirco certainly doesn’t. Even academics are puzzled. I listened in on a discussion at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria on Tuesday, with contributions from colleagues in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, and even this collection of minds devoted to the study and understanding of African politics was puzzled by South Africa’s motivation, or lack thereof.

There are plenty of theories that try to explain the gung-ho approach. It’s a plot for President Zuma to get rid of his ex-wife, who is a little more popular than he is comfortable with. It’s Zuma’s last chance to make an African legacy to rival Mbeki’s. It’s an attempt to impress upon western countries that South Africa is the continental powerhouse, and they should deal through us if they want to make an impact (or profit) in Africa. It’s a devious South African ploy to consolidate its economic and cultural dominance in Africa with political power. This is all just speculation, but none of it is convincing.

More convincing is the human angle. South Africa never anticipated the opposition to its candidate, convinced that Dlamini-Zuma would sail through the vote on the wave of her own high popularity. By the time they realised their mistake, it was too late, and besides, South African pride was at stake. That’s when the stubbornness kicked in and it hasn’t relaxed since.

But the more stubborn South Africa is, the greater the chance of losing it completely becomes – unless Dirco conjures a rabbit out of a hat. Given the blunders that have characterised Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign from the start, this seems unlikely. Best prepare for the inevitable stalemate. DM

Read more:

  • Analysis: African Union and the delicate dance of competing egos on Daily Maverick.
  • South Africa’s leadership of the AU has to be rejected on Africa Review.
  • Dismay over new bid to install Dlamini-Zuma at AU on Business Day.

Photo: The new African Union headquarters is seen in this general view taken in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa January 28, 2012. Perched under the shadow of a 100-metre tall marble monolith, a bronze statue of Ghana’s late leader Kwame Nkrumah was unveiled last month at the opening of the African Union’s new headquarters, in a glowing tribute to a trailblazer for African independence. Picture taken January 28, 2012. REUTERS/Noor Khamis.


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