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22 January 2018 13:58 (South Africa)
South Africa

ANC Leadership Race: Profile – With five days to go, who is Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma?

  • Carien du Plessis
    carien du plessis
    Carien du Plessis

    Jill of all trades but really, mistress of none, Carien has of late been a political tourist chasing elections and summits in various parts of the world, especially in Africa. 

    After spending her student days at political rallies in South Africa right through the country's first democratic elections in 1994, and after an extended working holiday in London, Carien started working for newspapers full-time in 2003. She's pretty much had her share of reporting on South African politics, attending gatherings and attracting trolls, but still finds herself attracted to it like a moth to a veld fire. 

    Her ultimate ambition in life is to become a travelling chocolate writer of international fame.

  • South Africa
Main photo: Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Au Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma addressing the mourners at the memorial service of Ronnie Mamoepa held at Tshwane Events Centre in Pretoria. 27/07/2017  Kopano Tlape GCIS

Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma has had an impressive career. Member of Parliament for the ANC, national executive committee member, former African Union Commission chair, minister of 18 years and doctor. Yet now approaching the end of the presidential leadership race as the first female contender for the ANC's presidency, she remains an enigma. There has been as much meaning in what she doesn’t say in public, as in what she does say. By CARIEN DU PLESSIS.

On Saturday Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma addressed what was possibly her last big rally event, a provincial send-off disguised as an OR Tambo Memorial gathering in Clermont, Durban.

It’s here that, in April 2014, shortly before the general elections, she told voters during a walkabout that ordinary people were more worried about service delivery than Nkandla – referring to the R240-million security upgrades by President Jacob Zuma to his homestead. He irregularly benefited from state money and was ordered to pay back a portion, and the scandal led to a Constitutional Court ruling that Zuma had failed to uphold the Constitution.

Despite never having criticised Zuma in public, Dlamini Zuma is not unaware of his faults. “I don’t want another Nkandla,” she told neighbours in a community meeting in Enkumba, about 10km outside Bulwer, when she showed them plans for the extension of her family home. She was African Union Commission chair at the time and the plan was to eventually retire here after her return.

Now, the Clermont rally at the weekend didn’t go off with the bang the KwaZulu-Natal leadership, her biggest campaigners, might have hoped for. Dlamini Zuma left when she arrived to empty stands at the planned starting time of 10:00, and returned only when it had started, three hours later.

Campaigner and Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans (MKMVA) spokesperson Carl Niehaus, currently resident in Ballito, was overheard in the VIP suite making frantic phone conversations about the empty stands.

Unlike some previous events, where he had a front-row seat on the stage, he kept a low profile, only showing his face at the end to say the veterans had resolved to stand behind Dlamini Zuma.

Maybe this discretion was related to the Sunday Times story the next day, which claimed the self-confessed fraudster lied about his mother’s death to get out of debt.

The event only got going around 13:00, but the Sugar Ray Xulu’s 6,500 capacity seating was at best under-utilised by at least a third. By the time Dlamini Zuma spoke, a harrowing two hours after the start, the wind and sun, and perhaps boredom and hunger, had taken its toll on the crowd. Half had left. Only the women’s league squad, dressed in church uniform-like green blouses and black skirts, remained enthusiastic.

For much of her campaign, Dlamini Zuma has managed to fill venues just enough for them to look full in pictures.

There’s been none of the energy that characterised Zuma’s defiant run-up to the 2007 Polokwane conference, when crowds rallied on the streets to his defence as he faced rape and corruption trials.

Not a populist

Still, Dlamini Zuma is popular. She got the most votes of all those on the party’s NEC at the ANC’s 2012 elective conference. But she’s not a populist.

During songs she does a kind of Madiba shuffle and puts on a smile. At first this is genuine, but later a hint of irritability and perhaps also fatigue filters through. There’s no pretending that she’s a lead singer, and she doesn’t finish her speeches with song.

Photo: ANC presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, on stage with ANC provincial and national heavyweights, attends a rally that was disguised as an OR Tambo Memorial gathering in Clermont, Durban on Saturday, 9 December, 2017. Photo: Carien Du Plessis.

Mostly she sticks to one message, and she often keeps these short. During her 30-minute speech on Saturday, in a mix of English and Zulu, with “thank you’s” in most of the official languages, she ploughed resolutely ahead on her usual policy issues of radical economic transformation (there’s still no definitive clarity on how this will work), youth development, the triple oppression of women and also a united ANC. Some of what she preaches comes from Agenda 2063, a 50-year plan for the continent drawn up under her leadership at the AU.

It is not normal that half of the people are not participating in the economy, and it is not sustainable too,” she said.

Her character in adversity is to stay on message and not get distracted by current affairs and proverbial ambulances. It’s what got her much flak at the AU – she was slow to intervene in conflicts, preferring instead a developmental approach. It might, however, have been better for her to stay on at the AU for another four-year term to see this approach through.

There was no mention on Saturday of the high court judgment the previous day, which in effect ruled Zuma too compromised to appoint a prosecutions head, and which set aside his appointment of Shaun Abrahams. Instead, it was left to one of her chief campaigners, ANC Youth League leader Collen Maine, to threaten a youth uprising against the judiciary similar to those against apartheid, except nobody really believed him.

Another of her wing women, ANC Women’s League leader Bathabile Dlamini, in a rambling speech that some would have attributed to alcohol had she not denied that she was a drinker, then brought up the topic of gender violence. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Radio 702 last week that he believed Khwezi, the woman who accused Zuma of rape, even though Zuma was acquitted by a court.

We want to say, Comrade Cyril, if you want to speak out about violence against women and children, talk about yourself. You must open up because you say you know how difficult it is for a woman to take a stand.”

Dlamini was hinting at Ramaphosa’s alleged string of blesser-style affairs with younger women, which he denied. He admitted to one former affair.

Dlamini Zuma said nothing about either issue in her speech, but in a rare media doorstop afterwards, Ziyanda Ngcobo from EWN slipped in a question about Khwezi. Dlamini Zuma said she’d rather not talk about Ramaphosa.

Perhaps the rebuilding of the ANC post-Nasrec is on her mind – an impossible feat should either of the candidates speak ill of the other.

Dlamini Zuma called for a peaceful conference with vibrant debate. “We won’t be rude and we don’t expect anyone to be rude. We must interact with respect,” she said. “It’s a democratic process, it’s not a fight against anybody.”

She also said the ANC was ready to win the 2019 general election, something which many in the ANC fear would be impossible under her lead.

Female pioneer

Dlamini Zuma has some serious blind spots with regards to gender justice, especially when it concerns comrades. Then foreign affairs minister, Dlamini Zuma took the side of then ambassador to Indonesia Norman Mashabane when he was found guilty on 23 charges of sexual harassment, saying he was targeted for exposing a car scam in the embassy.

Mashabane died in a car crash in 2007, but his wife, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, went on to replace Dlamini Zuma, and also features on her conference slate as ANC treasurer-general.

Nkoana-Mashabane was on Saturday seen in serious conversation with Dlamini Zuma, who jotted a few things down in a notebook during the conversation and also as she waited for her turn to speak, pausing once to touch up her lipstick while using her phone’s selfie function as a mirror.

Dlamini Zuma has had an ambition to become South Africa’s first female president since 1999 when former president Thabo Mbeki appointed her foreign affairs minister, a kind of presidential prep school.

In 2007 she ran as deputy president on Mbeki’s slate on principle, because women want to break the glass ceiling in politics and being in the presidency is a big step towards that, she told Sunday Times journalist S’thembiso Msomi at the time. The slate lost against Zuma’s.

This burning ambition to make a mark in history on women’s behalf explains much of what’s been happening in her presidential campaign thus far – and perhaps also explains why she is on the Zuma campaign vehicle despite it being an apparent ill fit in terms of her values.

Photo: Africa Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini Zuma waves beside US Chief of Protocol Ambassador Peter Selfridge, upon arriving at the North Portico of the White House, in Washington DC, USA, 05 August 2014. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

At her farewell speech at the AU’s January summit, she called to the stage Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first woman president and Africa’s only at the time, whose term came to an end this year. Sirleaf came into power on the back of the vote of women who wanted to see the country at peace after a drawn-out civil war.

When Dlamini Zuma speaks about her ambitions, it’s in a sweeping way, as a female pioneer. On Saturday she thanked the ANC branches who “made history, because for the first time in history we are going to have a cadre on the ballot [paper] who, amongst other things, is also a woman. That in itself is history. That happened never before,” she said.

But she urged ANC delegates to the ANC’s 54th national conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg not to stop there. At this point the stadium stands were more than half empty, but the television and live web broadcast cameras rolled on.

Comrades, in Nasrec you must continue to make history.” The conference was about resolutions and policy issues too, she reminded, and of course also about leadership elections.

Dlamini Zuma’s resolve comes a long way, from when she was the eldest of eight children, born on 27 January 1949. Her progressive teacher father, Willibrod Gweva Dlamini, very unusually made material sacrifices so his daughters could be educated and be independent, even if they got caught in bad marriages – ironically prophetic of him.

Dlamini Zuma has been an activist for women’s rights, especially in the medical field (she’s a qualified doctor with two degrees) in terms of reproductive rights and also in basic healthcare for women and children (when she was health minister).

At the AU she appointed the first Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, Bineta Diop, and helped spearhead an international campaign against child marriage in Africa. Her awareness of the issues is geniune, and delegates from the province seem geniunely convinced that a woman president would make a real difference.

A male delegate on Saturday said: “If you are under the mother, she listens.” It’s a sentiment also echoed by many female party supporters interviewed on previous occasions.

Ideological direction

Practically, however, many observers, businesspeople and investors want to know the nuts and bolts of the ANC’s future economic policy. Despite documents like the National Development plan, there’s been little consensus and even less leadership from the top.

Dlamini Zuma has spoken about skills and about the economy changing radically to become a more equitable one, but it’s still been vague on details.

Her beliefs, however, are underpinned by a Black Consciousness and pan-Africanist philosophy – so much so that Western diplomats have found her to be brusque to the point of rudeness.

She rubbed shoulders with Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and became vice-president of his South African Students’ Organisation before leaving for exile to the United Kingdom in 1976. At this time she and fellow activists endured intense police harassment for their political beliefs.

She’s not afraid to make herself unpopular to push what she believes is right.

Supporters have mentioned her time as a medical doctor, when she fought big pharmaceuticals over medicine prices, or when she pushed through laws confining public smoking to certain spaces, as examples of how radical economic transformation would be done.

Dlamini Zuma spent time in exile in the United Kingdom and Swaziland, among others, where she worked for the ANC, studied, and also practised medicine.

(She met Zuma in exile, married him in 1982 while already pregnant with their first daughter. They had three more daughters in the next seven years, but got divorced in 1998 over “irreconcilable differences”.)

When she was elected first female AU Commission chairperson in 2012, even the seriously critical ANC Youth League hailed her as a pan-Africanist hero.

She already had a track record of working with Mbeki on foreign affairs from 1999 to 2009, when he was pushing his African Renaissance vision on the continent.

They had mixed successes. Together they helped establish peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the turn of the century, for example, and pursued a dogged quiet diplomacy towards Zimbabwe.

Photo: Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is flanked by President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC’s policy conference in July this year. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

Is she a corruption fighter?

Unlike most of the six other presidential contenders, Dlamini Zuma’s campaign isn’t built around fighting corruption, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t believe in clean governance.

In 2011 the department of home affairs achieved its first clean audit under her leadership. She was widely praised for this feat.

Dlamini Zuma has, however, been on the wrong side of a major corruption scandal before, when she was health minister in the mid-90s and awarded a R13-million contract to a friend for producing the Aids-awareness play, Sarafina II, which subsequently flopped. She lied to Parliament and evaded accountability, protected by then president Nelson Mandela. To her credit, no corruption scandal of her doing of similar magnitude has emerged.

She’s never openly criticised the alleged corruption of Zuma or his family friends, the Guptas. In fact, she accepted a R250,000 cash award from ANN7, then Gupta-owned, and ceremonially handed over by Zuma.

Whether she knew at the time that the cash was dodgy is unclear, but she donated it to the Thusanani Foundation, which works with youth development and which subsequently hooked her up with some volunteers for her presidential campaign.

The founder, Mukovhe Masutha, was also previously in a serious relationship with Dlamini Zuma and Zuma’s youngest child, Thuthukile. Thuthu, as she’s known, is an ardent supporter of and participant in her mother’s campaign.

If her approach to many other current, controversial issues is anything to go by, it’s likely that Dlamini Zuma views corruption as the symptom of a bigger ill, which should be cured by corrective and developmental policies. It’s perhaps similar to her activist approach to HIV/Aids in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as not only a medical problem, but also one rooted in the socio-economic and political situation of black people at a time when the migrant labour system forced men to live away from their families for most of the year.

In her speech on Saturday she mentioned corruption among ANC leaders. “You must always be ready to be part of the solution, and not only a prophet of doom,” she said. “There will always be challenges. There is no organisation that has never faced challenges. The ANC has faced challenges before, but because it is ready to find solutions, that’s why we have an ANC that the forebears have bequeathed to us.”

Whether she will tackle the symptoms of corruption – prosecution of those found to be guilty – remains to be seen. The law enforcement agencies would have to be rebuilt, and some say the ill is so deep-rooted that it could end up collapsing the entire ANC body.

So what are her chances?

Far from returning from Addis Ababa to effortlessly ride Zuma’s campaign car, Dlamini Zuma has been slowed down by the increasing baggage of corruption revelations around him.

The #GuptaLeaks trove of emails detailing dealings between the Guptas and some Zuma family members and ministers have been particularly damaging.

Some of those implicated in corrupt dealings with the Guptas, like Maine and Free State premier Ace Magashule, have been main drivers of her campaign, while many more were nominated as additional members to the NEC by her supporters.

Publicly, Dlamini Zuma carefully attempted to distance herself from Zuma. Although she is his chosen successor and he openly endorsed her shortly after her return from the AU, they rarely share platforms. Her association with his supporters, however, has created the very valid perception that she could in future protect them as well as him.

One of the speakers at Saturday’s rally even shouted “viva Nxamalala”, a reference to Zuma by virtue of his birthplace. (At times, this association could have helped her in highly patriarchal rural places where men have openly stated an aversion to having a woman lead their meetings.)

It was not an insignificant step for Dlamini Zuma to go to court to divorce Zuma – she was his only legal or “paper” wife – or to run against his slate in 2007, but this hasn’t been enough to shake off the “ex-wife” epithet.

The link between them created by their four children, for whom she cares deeply and with a bit of a lingering working parent guilt, could influence her judgement. It is they who dissuaded her from taking Zuma’s place as deputy president after he was fired by Mbeki in 2005.

Dlamini Zuma started her presidential campaign while still at the AU, and made at least a dozen trips home annually to keep in touch. When she returned, she focused much of her campaign on personally visiting branches and making personal contact.

Still, partly due to her association with Zuma and the Zuma fatigue in the ANC, and partly perhaps due to patriarchal attitudes and her lack of charisma, she garnered fewer branch nominations than her campaigners expected.

She might still command about half of the delegates (her branches tend to be bigger than Ramaphosa’s), but it’s too close for comfort. Even in her home province, KwaZulu-Natal, her campaign managed to get nominations from only 56% of the province’s total audited branches.

Dlamini Zuma is, however, a shrewd politician (the race to become AU Commission chair was tough), and her supporters have of late been targeting delegates with negative messages about Ramaphosa.

Stories about dirty play and bribe money budgeted into the millions for the conference, from both sides, also abound, but if it came down to the wire at the conference, Zuma’s supporters have in the past decade won these battles.

Photo: Nondumiso Mathibela , 10, delivers a spirited performance for Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma at a rally on Saturday, December 9, 2017. Photo: Carien du Plessis

The future?

Right at the end of Saturday’s rally, the bused-in supporters long gone, a 10-year-old child named Nondumiso Mathibela stepped on stage to give a spirited oral performance in Zulu.

Dlamini Zuma was clearly charmed. Like Mandela, who was separated from his family for years in prison, children are a passion of hers. Should the 68-year-old make history around this time next week, will her ANC be able to move decisively and fast enough to leave born-frees like Nondumiso with a future to get excited about? DM

Main photo: Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Au Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma addressing the mourners at the memorial service of Ronnie Mamoepa held at Tshwane Events Centre in Pretoria. 27/07/2017 Kopano Tlape GCIS

  • Carien du Plessis
    carien du plessis
    Carien du Plessis

    Jill of all trades but really, mistress of none, Carien has of late been a political tourist chasing elections and summits in various parts of the world, especially in Africa. 

    After spending her student days at political rallies in South Africa right through the country's first democratic elections in 1994, and after an extended working holiday in London, Carien started working for newspapers full-time in 2003. She's pretty much had her share of reporting on South African politics, attending gatherings and attracting trolls, but still finds herself attracted to it like a moth to a veld fire. 

    Her ultimate ambition in life is to become a travelling chocolate writer of international fame.

  • South Africa

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