There is never a dull moment in Africa. We are emerging from the historic year that was 2011 with the North African revolutions, the Ivorian post-electoral violence, and of course the secession of Africa’s biggest country, Sudan. Yet on 29 January the continent was already in heightened mode at the African Union’s (AU) 18th Summit in Addis Ababa as South Africa’s current home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma representing the Southern African Development Community (SADC), challenged the current chairperson, Gabonese foreign minister Jean Ping, a candidate of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for the post of AU chairperson. This contest ended up as a deadlock as neither attained the required two-thirds majority to win. SADC has re-elected Dlamini-Zuma as their candidate for re-election in the AU’s next summit in Malawi in June 2012.
In this piece I aim to address two of South Africa’s arguments explaining their nominated candidate’s failure to win 1) a prevailing patriarchal discourse in Africa and 2) the assertion that the election was a reflection of stubborn colonial boundaries that continue to hinder progressive relations between former Anglophone and Francophone states. I however argue that Dlamini-Zuma was an unfortunate victim of a poor misreading of events in the continent by South Africa, whose foreign policy behavior has become contradictory and unpredictable. In essence, Dlamini-Zuma’s misadventures are neither indication of gender relations at the AU or an indication of old colonially determined tensions in the continent.
In an official media briefing after the AU vote, International Relations and Cooperation minister Maite Nkoane Mashabane argued that South Africa “has been very clear that we want very good cordial relations with our co-operating partners, not based on colonial relations and who colonised who” and that the SADC region has not had a chance to lead the AU since 1963. Since the transformation of the AU in 2002 from the Organisation of African Unity, the three chairpersons including Ping, have all come from the West African region. The first and second were Ivorian Amara Essy and Malian Alpha Oumar Konare. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe was even more explicit stating that “we have shaken the AU because we have disorganised the French who always had a stronghold on the continent and nobody could win, nobody could get two thirds majority.” Nkoane Mashabane then asserted “for the first time since 1963 till date, we have never gone to a round where a female candidate has gotten so far, with all the patriarchy and all the other impediments you know too well about.” While a defiant Mantashe affirmed this view arguing that “there will be elections in July – but more important about these things comrades is that we put in a female candidate for the first time” speaking to South Africa’s championing not only of an agenda to represent SADC but also championing a transformative gender agenda within AU leadership.
These explanations do not take into cognisance the significance of South Africa’s missteps in the continent just last year. In the Ivorian crisis, while ECOWAS’ strong force Nigeria made it clear that the region supported the affirmation of President Alassane Ouattara; the South Africans seemed to favour incumbent Laurent Gbagbo. This particularly angered Nigeria. Additionaly, the other motivating factor by South Africa for a Southern African candidate has been their critic of Jean Ping’s management of the Libyan crisis. Despite the fact that the South Africans made the crisis difficult for the AU to manage as they voted in favour of United Nations Resolution 1973 at the UN Security Council, and then contradicted their position by opposing intervention at the AU level.
As for traditional loyalties, South Africa can also be accused of misreading the power dynamics that shape cooperation as they broke the AU‘s ‘unwritten’ rule which discourages powerful states from occupying the key position in order to avoid power struggles between major countries. As argued by Cilliers and Louw-Vaudran, “indications are that Kenya, Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia and other larger countries also voted against Dlamini-Zuma possibly reflecting a common resistance to South Africa, or indeed possibly any of Africa’s powerhouse countries to stand for the position of Chairperson.”
By way of conclusion I recommend that South Africa take seriously the exciting shifts in the continent that have seen the continent produce some fast growing economies such as those of Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, as a recognition that South Africa is no longer the continent’s unchallenged hegemon. By all means Africa is in a state of multipolarity which is reflective of a global shift from the United States hegemony to the multipolarity that sees the US balancing power with Germany, Japan, France, United Kingdom, with emerging countries such as China, Brazil, and India. Therefore, when South Africa does not gets its way in the continent, a reliance on old explanations that privilege the salience of colonial borders in Africa’s relations as well as using sexism as explanations of resistance only demonstrates that South Africa needs to grasp these new dynamics shaping Africa’s international relations. Furthermore South Africa has in the past been particularly successful in sending women to lead peace and security issues in the continent such as Brigalia Bam who served at the AU Panel of the Wise and Graca Machel who mediated the Kenyan post-election crises, and therefore needs to avoid using sexism as a scapegoat when matters do not go its way because that can only lead to ghettoising women such as Dlamini-Zuma.