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Challenges Ahead for New AU Commission Chairwoman

 Newly elected South African minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as first female head of the African Union (AU) Commission, speaks during a press conference,July 16, 2012.

Newly elected South African minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as first female head of the African Union (AU) Commission, speaks during a press conference,July 16, 2012.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma takes office as the new chairperson of the African Union Commission on Monday.

South African Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the first woman to hold the position of AU Commission Chair. She was elected to head the AU’s executive arm in July after a bruising battle with incumbent Jean Ping, which showed the division between French-speaking African states and the Southern African Development Community.

In time, it may prove to be the easiest challenge she’ll face in the African Union.

Pressing issues

As her tenure starts, Dlamini-Zuma’s most pressing policy issues are tackling support for a military intervention in northern Mali - where Islamist militants have taken control after an April coup - and a growing rebellion in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Internally, the 63-year-old will need to heal divisions brought out in her successful leadership fight - and fears that the continent’s economic powerhouse, South Africa, will try to dominate the 54-member body.

Major-General Chris Pepani, the South African ambassador to the African Union, worked with Dlamini-Zuma when she was minister of foreign affairs from 1999 to 2009. He describes her style of leadership as firm.

“She is a very strategic thinker, a person that I could describe as a person of substance," he said. "And, she is a person of detail and she is a person that walks the talk. She believes in things being delivered. She is a very kind person, but very firm person.”


Dlamini-Zuma has served in various ministerial posts in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. She was the health minister under president Nelson Mandela, foreign affairs minister under president Thabo Mbeki and home affairs minister under her ex-husband, President Jacob Zuma.

Critics of the long-time politician, who is also a medical doctor, point to her controversial positions against anti-retroviral drugs as hindering the fight to reduce South Africa’s AIDS rate, which is still the highest in the world.

But Dlamini-Zuma also had many successes in her political career, making her popular in South Africa. She has been praised for desegregating the health care system after the end of apartheid, and providing free access to basic health care for the poor.

She also turned around the department of home affairs, which used to be known as one of the most mismanaged ministries in South Africa.

Despite these achievements, independent African Union expert Mehari Taddele Maru says being a leader in a pan-Africanist organization is different.

”You have a different set up, a different mandate and different actors playing, different political dynamics," said Maru. "So we cannot transpose what she has achieved in South Africa will be the same thing, the same manner, the same approach will work in the African Union.”

Dlamini-Zuma's goals

Dlamini-Zuma has said she will make the African Union a more effective organization. Mehari says she will have to make four changes to deliver on that promise:

“The first thing she should push is we should stop policy formulation, we should stop norm setting and start policy implementation," said Mehari. "The second area is there are procedures. The bureaucracy internally has to change. It takes on average three years to recruit one person. The third is implementation of budget.

"The program budget implementation of a program is 39 percent," continued Mehari. "Almost 61 percent is not used. The forth area is of course recruitment. It has only 50 percent of the staff that was approved in 2003.”

Much attention will be focused on her gender as the first woman. Bience Gawanas, the outgoing AU commissioner of social affairs who has known Dlamini-Zuma for a long time thinks it is extremely significant that a woman will now take office as chairperson, but points out that she was not chosen because of her gender.

“The particular woman that was elected is a former minister of foreign affairs with a good understanding of the organization, she served on the executive council," said Gawanas. "By profession she is a doctor, a medical doctor. And also served in her country as minister of health. So she definitely brings with her a wealth of experience, apart from the fact that she also fought for the freedom in South Africa.”

Gender discrimination

Despite that, Commissioner Gawanas thinks being a woman will make the job harder for Dlamini-Zuma

“As women, we always will experience discrimination," she said. "Some very direct, some very indirect. I think it will take a long time for men to be subordinate to a woman, in the sense that you will be a supervisor to men. When I came to the African Union, I definitely realized that it was a very bureaucratic institution; it was also a very male-dominated institution.”

Dlamini-Zuma does not seem fazed by being the first woman or the first South African to hold the post. She has said her main focus will be on making the African Union a stronger, efficient and more effective institution for the whole continent.