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Farewell, Madam Chair: Inside Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s troubled tenure at the African Union

Farewell, Madam Chair: Inside Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s troubled tenure at the African Union

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma never looked like she wanted the African Union job, and she won’t be sad to see the back of it. The feeling, however, is mutual. Dlamini-Zuma did little to enhance her reputation during her time in Addis Ababa. In an in-depth feature, SIMON ALLISON looks at what went wrong, and why the dice were loaded against her from the start.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy for chairperson of the African Union Commission began awkwardly.

A beaming Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, international relations minister, made the formal announcement at a Cabinet lekgotla in January 2012, with Dlamini-Zuma sitting expressionless by her side. Did she even want the job? Her body language suggested otherwise. Perhaps she understood, unlike the naïve Nkoana-Mashabane, the scale of the challenges ahead.

When I asked her at that press briefing if she felt ready to leave the Department of Home Affairs, which she was then leading to widespread acclaim, she gave the textbook response of a loyal African National Congress (ANC) cadre:

Home Affairs is a government department. You get appointed, you get removed.”

In other words: This wasn’t my decision.

Five years later, that initial awkwardness has not dissipated. It is clear that Dlamini-Zuma’s heart was never in the job. Madam Chair, as she is formally known, made few friends in her time in Addis Ababa, earning a reputation for being aloof and unapproachable while surrounding herself with imported South African staffers. She wasn’t necessarily a bad leader, but nor did she effect the kind of sweeping changes that South African officials kept promising when campaigning for her election.

I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that I am disappointed by her performance,” said Elissa Jobson, African Union expert with the International Crisis Group. “She was expected to come in to reform the commission, she had that good reputation from her time in government in South Africa, but she hasn’t used the position as we might have expected.

One of the major criticisms that you hear in Addis from all quarters is that she had one foot in South Africa. Even from day one it was clear that she was probably only going to be doing one term, and that she would be going to South Africa to vie for the presidency, and that’s been a distraction. It’s quite telling that this year’s state of the continent address [the first and only such address delivered by Dlamini-Zuma] was given in Durban. I think also it’s not clear how committed she was to the job. To say she was ‘exiled’ is too strong a word, but she was sent to the Commission by President Zuma and it’s not clear how much her heart was in it. I think there’s also a South African exceptionalism that has fed into how she’s approached her position,” said Jobson.

They only serve pap in the canteen’

South African officials really believed they had enough support to guarantee Dlamini-Zuma’s election to the chairpersonship at the January 2012 African Union summit in Addis Ababa. Some of them, buying wholesale into that pernicious myth of South African exceptionalism, even thought that Dlamini-Zuma would be welcomed with open arms by her incompetent continental brethren, who must surely be desperately waiting for a South African to come along and whip the institution into shape.

But they had misread the mood on the continent. Nigeria, along with the majority of Francophone nations, saw things rather differently. They saw a continental bully determined to get its own way, and viewed Dlamini-Zuma as a stalking horse for South Africa’s neocolonial aspirations. They mobilised behind incumbent chair Jean Ping, forcing a stalemate; it was only at the next summit, in June – following an enormous South African lobbying effort – that Dlamini-Zuma was elected.

The most controversial aspect of Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy was not her close relationship with President Zuma, her ex-husband, as many onlookers assumed, but instead South Africa’s decision to tear up a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement”, an unwritten rule which prevented Africa’s major powers from putting forward candidates for the AU’s top job. This was a massive breach of diplomatic protocol, and South African diplomats seriously underestimated the consequences.

As one South African official told me at the time: “What is an unwritten rule? If it is unwritten, then it is not a rule.”

But diplomats across the African continent disagreed:

The way she was elected meant that Dlamini-Zuma started with many enemies at the AU. It was a very aggressive campaign. There is a sound reason why big international organisations shouldn’t have people from the superpowers leading them. If you are a big country, you will always be accused of bias,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a veteran AU-watcher and editor of the Peace and Security Council Report. “The election was very divisive. Even today the Anglophone-Francophone divide is still there. It took her a couple of years to live that down.”

It soon became clear that although bridges had been burned, Dlamini-Zuma was not the person to rebuild them. “She wasn’t popular, she wasn’t liked. Generally, the staff, the ambassadors, the outside partners, all felt that she was very closed and uncommunicative,” said Louw-Vaudran.

It could take up to a month for African ambassadors to the AU to receive a meeting with Dlamini-Zuma, whereas her predecessor Jean Ping was much more easily accessible. For foreign ambassadors, the wait was even longer, even for representatives of the western governments that were paying for 72% percent of the AU’s budget. (For journalists, she was also notoriously hard to get interviews with. Her spokesperson declined to respond to a request to be interviewed for this piece).

Just a few months after she took office, a joke started making the rounds in Addis: “They only serve pap (South African maize meal) in the canteen now.” The joke reflected the very real concern that Dlamini-Zuma intended to hijack the AU Commission to further South African foreign policy.

It didn’t help that Dlamini-Zuma was hardly ever in Addis.

She has been the chairperson that has been the most absent from Addis, since the AU was created,” said Désiré Assogbavi, head of Oxfam’s AU liaison office. “She is spending a lot of her time in South Africa, even when the continent is burning. So people are asking the question: was she just using the AU so she could raise her profile to become the president of South Africa?”

It’s a good question. There is no doubt that Dlamini-Zuma is a key figure in the ANC’s faction-fighting; in 2012, many analysts speculated that she was deployed to the AU to prevent her from challenging President Zuma before his term was up. But with the ANC’s leadership conference scheduled for December this year, Dlamini-Zuma has emerged as the early favourite to succeed him.

Her supporters often point to her record at the AU to illustrate the calibre of her leadership. “It is through her sterling work as the African Union Chairperson that the collective of the ANC Women’s League firmly believes that Comrade Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will and is able to lead South Africa in being a leader not only in the African continent but in global politics as well,” said the Women’s League in a statement.

But maybe South Africans should be taking a closer look at that record.

She took the testosterone out of the room’

Credit where credit is due: Dlamini-Zuma did some things well.

I think her experience and her wisdom are underestimated. She may be widely disliked both within the AU secretariat and by many of the diplomatic community, largely because she has so little charisma, but she would argue that she is not there to be liked. But if you look at what she actually did at the AU, she did get things done in some areas,” said Anton du Plessis, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies.

One major accomplishment was to bring a degree of professionalism to the AU’s lumbering bureaucracy. At least the basics: e-mails were answered, the website was updated, press releases were issued timeously.

She brought a level of respect for process and respect for professionalism. If she said a meeting starts at nine, then it starts at nine. And so people started taking the AU more seriously because it was behaving like a professional institution,” said Du Plessis.

This technocratic efficiency was mirrored in how she managed staff. She insisted on personally signing off on all travel requests. She enforced the mandatory retirement age, sending over-age staff packing instead of giving them lucrative contract work. She zealously tried to improve the commission’s gender balance, forcing recruiters to re-advertise positions when they failed to shortlist any female candidates. This hard-nosed approach may, in part, explain why she was so unpopular.

Another major impact was to change the way that the AU discussed the continent’s problems. In a room of stuffy old men talking about guns and tanks, she brought in concepts like gender, human rights and food security.

She changed the entire environment in Addis and in Africa more generally. She took some of the testosterone out of the discussion on African peace and security issues. She brought not only a gendered perspective, which was important, but a much more holistic developmental approach to Africa’s problems. If you look at how far the AU has come in its debate on African problems, and trying to take more than just a military approach, history will judge her kindly,” concluded Du Plessis.

Then there is Agenda 2063, Dlamini-Zuma’s flagship policy initiative, which sets out what Africa is going to look like half a century from now, and how it is going to get here. In a rare effort at popular communication, Dlamini-Zuma set out its key points in an informal “e-mail from the future”, written by her to a fictional African citizen in 2063. She outlines her vision of how Africa starts exploiting its own natural resources; how it becomes a pioneer in renewable energy; how kiSwahili replaces colonial languages as the new lingua africanus; how its economies grow and its people become prosperous; and, above all, how the continent unifies and integrates.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we used to get irritated with foreigners when they treated Africa as one country…! But, the advancing global trend towards regional blocs reminded us that integration and unity is the only way for Africa to leverage its competitive advantage,” she wrote, the exclamation mark suggesting that the Dlamini-Zuma of 2063 may be a little more excitable than her current iteration.

Agenda 2063 is Dlamini-Zuma’s signature legacy. She worked tirelessly to push it through, and the document bears the stamp of her ideological preoccupations, from gender rights to pan-Africanism to the unflinching emphasis on continental integration.

This is the very first time the AU has had a concrete long-term programme. There have been visions, there have been expressions of mission, but Agenda 2063 is a quite detailed and concrete business plan for a 50-year period. She showed plenty of leadership to make this happen. It is a very inspiring document, even though all the elements necessary to make it a reality are not there,” said Oxfam’s Assogbavi.

The Economist is less convinced. “Her flagship policy, Agenda 2063, is like a balloon ride over the Serengeti, offering pleasant views of a distant horizon and powered by hot air,” it wrote in a scathing leader article.

Not another woman’

In interviews, I am repeatedly told that Dlamini-Zuma “failed to live up to expectations”. There is a contradiction here: somehow, the person seen as a tool of South African interests was also expected to enact genuine reform and show sincere continental leadership. This stems, in part, from Dlamini-Zuma’s history. As foreign minister under Thabo Mbeki – who remains enormously popular in Addis Ababa – she is indelibly associated with his vision for an African Renaissance.

It took a while for people to work out what kind of chairperson she was going to be: Mbeki’s ideological heir, or tool of her ex-husband’s neo-colonial agenda? And yes, it speaks volumes about the AU’s entrenched patriarchy that she is so often perceived through the prism of the powerful men in her life.

I do think her gender counted against her. It was easier to ignore her or belittle her because she was a woman. The majority of heads of state are very chauvinistic, as are ambassadors and representatives to the AU, and they still blame everything that went wrong in her tenure on the fact that she is a women,” said Louw-Vaudran. These attitudes are so entrenched that, in the run-up to the new leadership contest at the AU Summit in Addis later this month, one North African country is explicitly lobbying for “not another woman”.

In other words, before Dlamini-Zuma could get anything done, she had to fight against the system. It’s an important caveat, and may explain why she has such a poor record on the African issues that really mattered.

She hasn’t really been effective on a lot of the emerging peace and security challenges on the continent. Look at Mali, or Burundi. These crises have emerged on her watch. I don’t see that she has been able to effect any real change, to prevent the outbreak of any kind of crisis,” said Aditi Lalbahadur, a foreign policy expert at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

It is the bloody civil war in South Sudan, of course, that will go down as the AU’s greatest failure during Dlamini-Zuma’s four years in office. The AU has been criticised for standing aside and wringing its hands as the conflict raged, and the records will reflect that it happened on Dlamini-Zuma’s watch. Not that Dlamini-Zuma is to blame, specifically: this was a collective failure by the continent to promote peace and stability in its newest country.

She was also maddeningly inconsistent. Initially outspoken on President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term in Burundi, she fell silent as he consolidated his power by assassinating opponents and shutting down civil society. She condemned Egypt’s military government following the 2013 coup there, and was instrumental in getting Egypt temporarily suspended from the AU, but kept quiet when it came to power grabs by Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Denis Sassou-Nguessou in the Republic of Congo. She also ignored the brutal police response to protests in Ethiopia, which left more than 400 people dead, choosing not to ruffle the sensitive feathers of her AU hosts.

Ultimately, it is hard to escape the conclusion that she was serving African heads of state rather than ordinary citizens. This impression is furthered by how she closed the space for African civil society, restricting NGO access to the commission and shutting them out of AU summits. Hers was not an administration for the people.

We’ve seen a setback in terms of the AU’s relationship with civil society. Certainly there is less access to the summits, which I think particularly for African-based NGOs was one opportunity where civil society would get to rub shoulders with those in power. With the closing of that space, that’s made communication much more difficult,” said Jobson.

So much for consolidating Mbeki’s African Renaissance. But if Dlamini-Zuma really was supposed to further South Africa’s foreign policy agenda, she didn’t do that either.

I struggle to see that her time in Addis was good for South Africa’s foreign policy. I just don’t see the evidence. I don’t see that SA has necessarily advanced itself more on the continent. If anything, I’d say the opposite was true, that South Africa has taken more of a back seat on emerging crises that have taken place in the last four years. I also don’t see that she’s taken decisions that are specifically advantaging South Africa,” said Lalbahadur.

Farewell, Madam Chair

As Dlamini-Zuma prepares to say goodbye to Addis, it is obvious that she won’t miss the place much. It is just as clear that Addis won’t miss her, either.

She was decent on the small stuff. Cleaning up the AU bureaucracy, making it more efficient and respectable, cutting out needless expenditure. She was also good at the big picture: her Agenda 2063, if implemented, really would take the continent in the right direction.

But she was powerless to stop conflict erupting, or dictators hanging on to power for dear life. That is partly due to the nature of the position, and partly because of the burdens she brought into office with her: her gender being one, and her divisive election another. But it is also true that she did not use her office to its full potential, preferring to take a back seat when it came to issues of conflict, security and democratisation, all the while alienating colleagues and counterparts with her closed door policy. And she could never shake off the perception that she was there simply to push a South African agenda, even if that agenda never got very far. The canteen is still serving pap.

Ultimately, Dlamini-Zuma was a moderately good manager, when the AU needed an exceptional leader.

The policies adopted by the AU are very progressive. But less than 10% of these policies are implemented. If you keep quiet, and don’t challenge this, if you don’t call out those who are not performing, then you’re just playing politics. Africa has no time for this. We want a person who can make things happen. An inclusive leader, an outspoken leader. Someone who can inspire,” said Assogbavi.

At the AU, Dlamini-Zuma could never be that person. Can she be any different at home? DM

Photo: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, addresses the press during the first day of UN secretary-General Ban (not pictured) tour of the Sahel region in Bamako, Mali 05 November 2013. EPA/TANYA BINDRA


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