Dear Nkosazana: Beware of great expectations

By Simon Allison 15 October 2012

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will be sworn in as chair of the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa on Monday. It’s been a bruising battle to get her there, and now that she’s finally in charge she’s got a lot of work to do, and not all that much power to do it with. By SIMON ALLISON.

So, Nkosazana: you finally made it to Addis Ababa. I’ll admit there were times in the last year when I thought that your mission to take over as chairwoman of the African Union Commission was doomed, that our bull-headed diplomats had forever scuppered your hopes of sorting out Africa the way you did Home Affairs. There were even more times when I wondered if you really wanted to go: who can forget the look of regret in your eyes when you told us how further your department still had to go? Well, most people did forget, but I was watching, and I never really bought your pro-forma protestations that you were just a loyal cadre who was content to be deployed wherever the party saw fit; wherever your ex-husband saw fit.

Forget that party loyalty now. Once you’re sworn in on Monday, you work for the African Union Commission, not the party. It’s a subtle distinction, to be sure. AUC, not ANC; easy to confuse the two after a few drinks at the pool bar of the Addis Sheraton, or when that ex-husband picks up the phone (on this note: please, please do something about the African Union’s phone lines as a matter of urgency. I have 17 different numbers, none of which has yet been answered in 18 months of trying).

Uncomfortably present at Monday’s inauguration will be Jean Ping, the incumbent AUC chairperson who you replaced in the bitter, divisive elections which dominated the agendas of both AU summits this year. Try not to be too smug: he’s still not sure what exactly he did wrong to earn such enmity from southern Africa. Neither are we. In fact, there are a lot of people bewildered at why SADC – led by South Africa – fought so aggressively to get you into this position, along the way shattering the gentlemen’s agreement which rather sensibly left your new job to candidates from the smaller, less powerful countries.

Some say it’s a plot for South Africa to take over the continent; others say it is part of a bigger plan to get a UN Security Council seat. Still others suggest it’s all about domestic politics and Zuma’s need to put some distance between himself and you, an enormously popular politician of proven competence who is a lot more dangerous in Pretoria than Addis.

Whatever the reason, now that Angola’s wallet and South Africa’s diplomatic bullying have got you where they want you, your first major task is to heal the wounds caused by all that politicking. Do I need to remind you of the powerful forces that were ranged against your candidacy? Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, France, China; these were just a few of your many opponents.

Of course, we all know that no one was really opposed to you personally. In fact, even as Nigeria was doing everything in its power to lobby for Jean Ping, Nigerian diplomats were privately admitting that they thought you would be a great candidate at an individual level. Your reputation for efficiency precedes you, bolstered by your time as Thabo Mbeki’s foreign affairs minister; unlike Zuma, Mbeki was and is well-loved in the rest of Africa. Once the dust has settled, and you begin to lead with your trademark humility, these relationships will repair themselves.

More difficult will be to repair the AUC, which is in an abysmal state. At the last audit, nearly half of its positions were found to be unfilled; the budget was not even close to adding up; and, as previously noted, no one answers the phones. It’s a ponderous bureaucracy that struggles to attract talented people, and struggles even more to fulfil its basic functions. This will all sound reassuringly familiar to you; Home Affairs was in much the same condition when you took over. Although it won’t be easy, a little bit of your managerial magic will go a long way in making the AUC a functional, responsive institution that is effectively able to properly advise the AU and implement its decisions.

This is, however, the limit of your power; and, I worry, your eventual downfall. I can already tell that people have great expectations of what you’ll be able to achieve. Surely, they say, with Nkosazana in charge, there won’t be any more debacles like Cote D’Ivoire or Libya, where Africa was humiliated once again by international duplicity and our own schizophrenic responses? Surely, with Nkosazana in charge, Africa will start to prioritise the development and infrastructure projects which are so necessary, and tackle corruption, and punish those countries that still have no respect for human rights? Surely she can fix Africa the way she fixed Home Affairs?

You know, of course, that this is impossible (you also know that even Home Affairs isn’t fixed yet). You are only too aware of the limitations on your power; specifically, the 54 limitations that assemble twice a year at the AU’s heads of state meeting. You know the AUC is not the AU, that it doesn’t make the decisions, and that the AU has never been the united, visionary organisation it likes to sell itself as. You know that you might be able to influence things for the better, but it is not in your power to really change things.

I’m not sure, however, that other people know these things. Too many Africans, and South Africans in particular, think that you’ll be their saviour. No matter how good you are, you can’t be that. DM

Read more:

  • “Dlamini-Zuma in Ethiopia ahead of her inauguration,” on SABC News  
  • “Analysis: Mbeki’s cold shower on South Africa and the AU,” on Daily Maverick  

Photo: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma addresses the media during the leaders meeting at the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa July 15, 2012. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri


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