South Africa, Africa

Analysis: Mbeki’s cold shower on South Africa and the AU

By Khadija Patel 8 October 2012

The thrust of South African foreign policy over the last 18 months was ostensibly defined by a relentless campaign to have Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected to the chair of the African Union Commission. While many doubted the motives influencing the campaign, few doubted Dlamini-Zuma was the right person for the job. Former president Thabo Mbeki, however, begs to differ. By KHADIJA PATEL.

“Expectations will be disappointed.”

Former president Thabo Mbeki is doubtful of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s chances of success in her new role as chairperson of the African Union Commission. In basic language, Mbeki believes Dlamini-Zuma is in over her head. He believes the expectations of Dlamini-Zuma are so far removed from the actual functions of the African Union Commission that she cannot but fail. In an interview with The Sunday Independent, Mbeki expressed concern “about people putting a burden on her shoulders; a burden she can’t carry.” 

Mbeki’s remarks have tempered with criticism the air of triumph that has marked South African foreign policy since Dlamini-Zuma was successfully elected to head the African Union Commission. Quite apart from the growing disillusionment and disappointment with the morass of issues plaguing President Jacob Zuma’s administration, Dlamini-Zuma’s election to the AU Commission was the one thing that went government’s way this year. Mbeki’s remarks, in other words, are pouring cold water on the one good thing Zuma & Co. have had going for them recently.

Few understand exactly why it was so important to South African foreign policy to sacrifice Dlamini-Zuma to the African Union. Her work rescuing the Department of Home Affairs from the throes of indiscriminate chaos was widely applauded. If anything, she appeared to be needed more urgently in Pretoria than in Addis Ababa. Her candidacy for the AU job was pressed even after the first election last January delivered a mortifying blow to South Africa’s ambitions. It had become clear that South Africa’s drive to take over the reigns of the AU commission had embittered the continent’s other big hitters, like Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. But even as South Africa was criticised for pursuing the AU Commission chair, few debated Dlamini-Zuma’s ability to actually turn the AU Commission around. 

This, after all, is an instrument of the AU that has been rendered blunt by ineptitude. Key positions were not filled, reports of corruption were rife and there was little opportunity to hold key stakeholders accountable. Dlamini-Zuma, with a proven track record in domestic governance, appears to be well qualified for the job.   

Mbeki, however, feels that the expectations of Dlamini-Zuma are misplaced by a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the AU Commission works and what exactly she will be able to do. 

“I think part of this feeling that she is going to change [things] is the failure to understand how the AU operates. People might put a big burden on her shoulders, expecting her to do this and that, and when it doesn’t happen, they will blame her, when actually she has no capacity to do these things,” Mbeki said. 

Clayson Monyela, Deputy Director General of the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation, declined to comment on Mbeki’s remarks, but added that Dlamini-Zuma was not charged with changing anything at the AU. “We and SADC were not looking to change anything. Rather we were looking to enhance the everyday functions of the AU Commission,” he said. 

Mbeki believes the AU Commission would benefit better from a former head of state in the position of chairperson, for example former Malian president Alpha Konare. 

“The reasoning was that once you have a former head of state sitting in this position of chair, he will have sufficient influence over his former peers,” he said. According to Mbeki, the strength of the AU does not lie in the commission and its policies, but rather in the persuasive powers of one government upon another. Or, as he put it, “You have to be able to intervene with the governments in a manner that encourages them.”

Mbeki detractors, however, believe that it is Mbeki himself who coveted the AU Commission’s top job. They believe Mbeki was embittered by Dlamini-Zuma’s successful election and his comments are a ploy to discredit one of the Zuma administration’s foreign policy successes. From deep within the Zuma camp, Mbeki’s comments further indicate that he may well have lobbied against Dlamini-Zuma. 

And on the road to Mangaung, such conspiracy theories are par for the course. 

The suggestion of skulduggery means that these theories are not altogether irrational, but rather a further demonstration of the bitter clash of interests and ideas warring for the soul of the ANC – and, of course, reign of the country. DM

Read more:

  • Dlamini-Zuma set up to fail at African Union: Mbeki on Times Live 
  • Africa must fly, says Dlamini-Zuma on Business Day 

Photo: Former president Thabo Mbeki (R) gestures as Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma listens during a talk with students of Vietnam’s International Relations Institute in a Reuters file photo. REUTERS/Kham (VIETNAM)


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