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Optimism for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the First Female Chairperson of the AU


My election should not be seen as a personal victory but it should be seen as a victory for the African continent in general.

I'm an African citizen. I am loyal to the African Union, and I will serve the African Union, and I'll work collectively with every member state”

– Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, July 2012

By: Tessa Bolton

Hailed as a victory for women and the African continent, on Tuesday, July 17th 2012 Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa was sworn in as the first female chairperson of the African Union Commission. After six tough months of electioneering and uncertainty, her accession to the role of head of the executive arm of the AU was greeted with proclamations of relief and praise. Incumbent leader and opposition candidate Jean Ping, of Gabon, was gracious in defeat, telling the summit of 54 state representatives in Addis Ababa ‘I have played my part and I now take my bow’.[1]

Dlamini-Zuma is distinguished in her role in three ways: as an individual, as a woman, and as a South African. Individually, her experience and record speak volumes. Trained as a doctor, she was a veteran of the fight against apartheid and a ‘stalwart’ of the ANC[2] before becoming minister for Health in Nelson Mandela’s government. Since then, she has been one of South Africa’s longest-serving ministers, working in the cabinet of every government since 1994, in the Health, Foreign, and Home Affairs Ministries. She is credited with dramatically reducing corruption and increasing effectiveness in these Ministries with incredible results, and her reputation as a technocrat is formidable. With her freedom-fighter background, strong diplomatic skills, competent management, and ‘determination and incredible passion’,[3] she has been described as ‘one of the most competent post-apartheid ministers’[4] and the ‘darling’ of the South African government.[5]

As a woman, she is the first to undertake this lead executive role, marking a great symbolic step in the rights and role of women on the African continent. As a South African, she also breaks precedent, becoming the first candidate from the five largest and most influential economies in Africa to be elected in the history of the AU and its predecessor, the OAU. That she originates from the ‘powerhouse’ of South Africa may have significant implications for the African Union as a whole. South Africa occupies an influential position internationally, and there are hopes that Dlamini-Zuma’s appointment may increase the diplomatic heft and international profile and authority of the AU.

Dlamini-Zuma’s perspectives are inherently ‘imbued with a South African consciousness’,[6] potentially resulting in the AU’s policies becoming more closely in lined with South Africa’s foreign policy. There are hopes that this may lead to more decisive accomplishments concerning peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention throughout the continent. South African foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela recently stated that South Africa's foreign policy is focussed on “pursuit of the African agenda... and the promotion of human rights, democracy, and good governance”.[7] Dlamini-Zuma has already indicated that a specific focus of her four-year tenure will be to strengthen the AU's Peace and Security Council so it can deal more effectively with the conflicts and security matters which affect Africa's stability.[8] Further, there is some speculation that her appointment may work to build bridges between the AU and the ICC.[9] South Africa has frequently been a strong and public supporter of the ICC, and Dlamini-Zuma, in particular, was Minister for Foreign Affairs when South Africa ratified the Rome Statute in 2000. Unlike Jean Ping, who vilified the ICC and instigated a range of uncooperative policies, Dlamini-Zuma may be able to promote a much stronger working relationship between the two institutions. The enhancement of African and international peace and security architecture, along with a strengthened cooperation between the AU and UN regarding conflict resolution, are necessary measures to promote security and peace throughout the continent.

Dlamini-Zuma faces many challenges when she takes office in three months. The legacy left by the previous Chairperson demonstrates severe resource mismanagement within the Commission: only 48% of staff posts are filled, and departments routinely fail to spend up to 63% of their budget.[10] Dlamini-Zuma must also heal rifts caused by the long and bruising electoral campaign which highlighted lingering divisions, not only between Francophone and Anglophone African states, but also between geographical blocs within Africa. Some worry that her aggressive and divisive electioneering polarised parts of the continent, forming rifts which must be surpassed. Deeper threats exist, too, which potentially endanger the fundamental security of the continent. Long-term problems linger in Somalia and Western Sahara, and newer crises are occurring in Mali and the DRC and between Sudan and South Sudan. Each of these issues is crucial and sensitive, requiring strong, firm leadership in order to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will not only have to rejuvenate the African Union’s role in building peace between and within its countries and promoting humanitarian aid and intervention throughout Africa. She will also have a role in forging the reputation of the AU as an organisation which defends fundamental human rights and democracy. She must demonstrate to the world the unity of African nations, and consolidate the AU as a revitalised, integrated, formidable institution which will face up to its many global challenges.

Tessa Bolton is studying for an LLB in Law with Transnational studies at Kings College, London. She is currently interning with Justice Africa (

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of

[1] ‘Dlamini-Suma Pledges to Strive for Unity in Africa’, Mail & Guardian, 17/7/12,
[2] ‘Africa split after election win for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’, The Independent, 17/7/12:
[3] ‘Dlamini-Zuma rise to the head of AU’ Zambia Daily Mail, 18/7/12
[5] ‘The African Union has elected a star in Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’, The Guardian, 18/7/12, Justice Malala
[6] ‘South Africa will need to build bridges at the AU’, Mail & Guardian, 17/7/12,
[8] ‘Africa: New AU Commission Chairperson, Dlamini Zuma Promises New Agenda for Africa’, AllAfrica, 17/7/12
[9] ‘Will the African Union and ICC Mend Fences? New Leadership, Less Bad Blood’, Alana Tiemessen, 17/07/12,
[10] ‘Africa: Top Five Priorities in the New AU Chair’s Inbox’, AllAfrica, Simon Allison, 16/7/12,


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