Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the African Union chairperson contestation: a victim of South Africa’s poor foreign policy not sexism

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Jean Ping. Photo by Jacoline Prinsloo

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 [1]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.

[1] Jakkie Cilliers and Liesl Louw-Vaudra (2012). “AU Vote a Setback for South Africa”. http://www.issafrica.org/iss_today.php?ID=1421


Siphokazi Magadla

Siphokazi Magadla is a Lecturer and PhD student with the Department for Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. She is a Fulbright scholar holding a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University, USA. She was previously named one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans.

8 Responses to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the African Union chairperson contestation: a victim of South Africa’s poor foreign policy not sexism

  1. Thanks for this Siphokazi, very refreshing take. As I read the piece I’m reminded of another article I read a few weeks ago where the author states that “South Africa is too American to lead Africa” (please see: http://dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-01-27-analysis-south-africa-is-too-american-to-lead-africa). The effect of such statement is to the effect that South Africa, although maybe not intentionally, comes out as arrogant to other African states, and as such is not that popular with most of its African counterparts.

    Reading you piece further adds on to this, and I ask myself (and you), what (diplomatic?) steps can South Africa take now to help rebuild its reputation and relations with its African counterparts? And if you think perhaps its in South Africa’s interest for Dlamini Zuma to be elected in June?

    South Africa, as Africa’s ‘success story’/economic powerhouse, wouldn’t Dlamini’s appointment add to continental resentment towards Africa? I keep thinking back to informal conversations with friends from other African countries who increasingly view SA as arrogant and overbearing, maybe this should go to another African country?

  2. Allow me to speak from a neutral perspective, seeing that the author South African and GQ are South African.

    From the outset I agree with the author that Zuma’s failure to win the post is not due to patriarchy or colonial divisions. Having said that, allow me to point out that the vote was really not about Zuma but against Ping who majority of Africans, me included, feel that he has not done enough to assert the rightful position of Africa. What happened in Addis Ababa was a referendum on the monumental failure of Jean Ping and not on the ability of Zuma. I tend to believe had been any other bloc sponsored candidate, say the EAC, still Ping would have come out scarred.

    As GQ rightly puts it, there is a deep resentment among lesser nations in Africa on a ‘powerful’ one leading the AU. Infact there is an argument that none of Africa’s “big countries” – South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Kenya – should control the commission fearing domination and ‘bull dozing’. That to me is pedestrian at best.

    We are living in a different era, where to have our voices heard in the international arena, needs a powerful speaker. That speaker should be a powerful country. What better country that South Africa?

    While Kenya, my country, voted against Zuma (this I know), I still think South Africa, not her, is the right candidate to lead the AU.

  3. Thank you Gcobani and Eddie for your insightful comments, the reason I felt the need to write the article addressing these two issues is because if South Africa points issue to old colonial borders, then South Africa excuses itself from the way the bid was managed. As well if they blame misogyny within the AU then the fault lies with Dlamini-Zuma’s gender and not South Africa. While not suggesting that the AU is without sexism, I am of the view that Dlamini-Zuma’s gender was/is a positive contribution to the bid for an institution that is celebrating a decade for women. But rather the perceived forcefulness of South Africa’s management of this bid and South Africa’s recent performance with regards to peace and security matters of the continent contributed to the failed bid more than the latter.

    As other commentators have stated it is South Africa’s political economy that burdened her candidacy. At a personal level as the only minister who has served in all the administrations in South Africa from health, foreign affairs and home affairs, I can’t imagine any better candidate for this position from South Africa than Dlamini-Zuma. Her record as an effective leader and administrator (which is a necessity requirement for chairing the AU which is in need of such leadership) is not only known in South Africa but her peers at the AU were preview to it when she was foreign minister in the Mbeki era. This is where I differ with you Eddie when you say “I still think South Africa, not her is the right candidate to lead the AU”. I feel exactly the opposite.

    It is important to argue that perhaps South Africa is finally heading the call to be a more proactive hegemon since it has been accused of being too much of a ‘friendly giant’ which privileged a collaborative approach to the continent’s matters. The problem is that South Africa has had to deal with the tensions of foreign policy needs with balancing them with very serious domestic needs characterised by a growing violent popular disobedience due to alarming ineqaultiy, which has seen the country taking less initiative than compared to the Mbeki era. One only has to read the latest White Paper on Foreign Policy published last year by South Africa to realise this tension as the country remains unsure how to reconcile the domestic with the continental. To address your point Gcobani about the way forward, I want to suggest that part of the confusion about South Africa today lies in the lack of clarity about the kind of leadership South Africa can offer the continent. In the White Paper they speak of an undefined concept of “Ubuntu diplomacy” which I presume is just a different phrasing for what sounds like Mbeki’s African Renaissance foreign policy rhetoric. For me South Africa needs to think seriously about their engagement with the continent before expecting their economic might lends them fit for leadership. The evidence already discussed from the past year has cultivated an anxiety about South Africa’s place in the continent which needs a sense of consistency that is a currently lacking.

    Eddie, I take your point that the other way to look at this race is to examine it as a setback for Ping. I also accept the point that there is a need to revisit this “unwritten” rule about who leads the continent’s highest body. Some scholars have already called for a need for the Africa 5 (A5) uniformed similar to the G8. They argue that it is about time Africa’s powerful economies pull their weight on the continent’s matters instead of acting as if all states are equal when one only has to look at the five countries (South Africa, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Nigeria) that constitute 75% of the AU budget. The A5 proposition also comes with its politics, but I suppose the positive aspect of South Africa’s candidate running for the AU top post is that we are beginning to realise that some rules perhaps need to be changed. The elections in June will tell us whether the continent is more ready for this change than we anticipate

  4. A beautiful piece indeed :-) Its all so easy to go the sexist or even language route without necessarily examining some of the underlying ‘issues’. As a Mosotho, my first point of engagement with South African foreign policy always starts with the ‘unfriendly visit’ we got in 1998, moves to Zimbabwe’s silent diplomacy, and to everything else in between to present day. From this vantage point, I often wonder if the policy itself is being amended to deal with some of the contradictions that may have an impact in how we perceive South Africa. For me, a reflective exercise is needed to understand the bigger picture so that South Africa can develop a better strategy for having Dlamini-Zuma – who I also believe is an excellent candidate.

  5. Great piece Spokes. very well balanced analysis. I agree almost with everything that you are putting forward.I should think the political dynamics in the continent in general, in the continental body in particular (AU), will remain the same until such time that we have ‘responsible’ regional hegemons in the continent- responsible hegemons who do not only use their financial clout and hard power capabilities to pursue their own strategic interests but to also shoulder continental responsibility and contribute to the continental public good. One might argue that
    through its involvement in DRC and its recent financial support to Somalia, SA is trying to be a ‘good and responsible African citizen’ but it does not end there. The country needs to address the issue of its ‘albino-ism’ (not being African enough and not being European enough) through public and economic diplomacy that seeks to improve the country’s relations with other African countries. What is happening at the AU level is an extension of what it happening at bilateral level between countries. Until such time that ‘othering’ (them anglophones and us francophone) cease to be a point of reference in political engagement in the continent and becomes a historical footnote in our political vocabulary, we will continue to see a polarized AU. For SA, until such time the country focus on gearing its foreign policy towards “effective multi-lateralism”, it will continue to be seen as a ‘bastard child’ of Africa-one that is not black enough (African) or white enough (western).

    On the issue of A5, I remember at ISS we discussed it. In fact, I remember we had some heated debates with Dr. Paul-Simon Handy. He was of the view that Africa has to invent new tools to drive regional integration and that new ideas and options should be explored. A possible way-out, he argued, could be for responsible powers in the continent to engage in what is generally referred to as club governance, a sort of African G5 or G7. I was in disagreement with him. I was of the view that, though, it can be debated ad infinitum whether or not club-governance could be the best way of responding to the ‘crisis’ of African multilateralism; or whether it could re-invent new poles of power in the continent. The bottom line is that, club governance poses itself as an insidious threat to African Unity. In fact, if the leading African countries could yield to a call for creation of A5, African unity might become a dream deferred.

    Though at first glance club governance sound as a good idea- the ambiguities and vagueness inherent in this concept of African club governance might create a number of challenges.
    For instance, it is not clear whether this will be an informal ad-hoc coalition or will be a permanent arrangement. What will be the agenda of this A-5? Is this arrangement going to be able to balance national interests of member countries with a shared continental responsibility and commitment to the continental public good? Is the club-governance model going to contribute to rules- based political system in the continent? What are the implications for the work of the AU? Will it focus on complimenting the work of the AU and address the shortcomings of its consensus building approach? Or will it focus on collective management of African commons? Where will the power be, in the club or in the AU? Is the AU going to remain the only legitimate and legitimizing body?

  6. Thanks Mathe and Thembani for your comments. Mathe I do agree with you as I have stated on previous comment that some indication of some broader goal to reach for is necessary from South Africa and for that matter any country’s foreign policy. This is however not to suggest that the policy must not be open to some ambiguity from time to time due to changing domestic and international political contexts.

    Thembani, before I address your A5 very productive points. I must first address the question of South Africa’s bipolarity or the much more loaded term ‘albino-ism’ that you use. Gcobani expressed the same anxiety about South Africa’s place/identity in African politics. I am resistant to indulge this position in fear of a engaging a problematic self-deprecation. These discussions about South Africa being too American i.e being at once loved and hated by her counterparts I find less productive as it the baggage of having some power. What I resist is an increasing feeling by South Africans of ‘poor us, what do we do with ourselves for being richer than our neighbors?’ I don’t think these sentiments do much for paving a way forward. Especially for South Africans who know quiet well the contested nature of South Africa’s wealth within the country whose education and health systems are doing much worse than her neighbors, producing less competent graduates with a youth that is dying much younger than our West African, East and North African counterparts. Therefore, there is a much bigger task at hand to consolidate a better life for all within South Africa and contributing to an international order than is conducive to a democratic human rights framework (which would ensure that the a similar case of apartheid is never repeated here or elsewhere)that South Africa promised itself and the world in its transition. The country is and should be judged according to what it promises and delivers by its African counterparts and other external partners.

    I agree with you entirely on the complexity of the A5/G5 idea. Wealth would not be a valid criteria for setting up such a formation whether permanent or otherwise. It would have to complete the AU’s goals of building strong institutions that can withstand political contestations in a democratic space. The transformed AU has already made overtures in this regard with more democratic states in the continent than before who are open to being examined by their counterparts in the APRM. Therefore to put South Africa and then Libya in the A5 by virtue of their wealth would do more damage for continental relations than good. In any case this is the same problem we have at the UN level where developing countries have been expressing that the Security Council needs to be more representative/democratic and that rich countries should not merely wield their power by virtue of their financial contribution to the UN body.

  7. i really enjoyed reading this article and especially the analysis it provided as well as the analysis people who have commented have provided.i have learnt a few things.. I must admit when Nkosazani Dlamini Zuma did not win my first thought was that it was going to be a challenege for a women to take up such a powerful position seeing that africa is mostly a patriachal society. SA definately needs to first establish its own identity within the continent, i think this ‘in between and not really taking sides’ attidue that SA has had thus far needs to come to an end. Africa needs leaders who are not afraid to promote african ideals in western dominated world. i also just feel its time for african leaders to work together to eal with security issues that face our regions. if the strong est countries work together im pretty sure a way forward can be establised in order to deal with peace-security issues. i want the battle of the chairperson of the AU to be more about who can effectively take thin body forward and effcitevly deal with isues that we face as a conitnent rather than which showing which region is more stronger. its about time the african union is taken seriously by the rest of the world.

  8. Well-done Siphokazi :-) I haven’t been this enlightened in a long time. I was very curious about the outcome of these AU chair elections but I never really followed-up on the post-election arguments to explain as to why South Africa could not get the two-third majority vote. That being said your article has educated me about some of the issues which are going on in African politics, which I was not aware of. One of them being the fact that South Africa is hegemonic in its approach to its involvement in Africa. That is very true and truly South Africa does impose itself and throws a bit of its weight around in a fashion which seem to undermine other african leaders or their states. This is just one of the many valid points which you make in this piece. Thank you for such an education.

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