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South African AU Chair Nomination Raises Eyebrows

Nkosazana C. Dlamini-Zuma (2008 file photo).

Nkosazana C. Dlamini-Zuma (2008 file photo).

South Africa has broken with African Union (AU) tradition and nominated Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as a candidate for chairperson of the AU Commission to replace incumbent Jean Ping. Analysts say the move could be divisive at this week's AU summit.

Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the independent Institute for Security Studies, says the move is potentially divisive given that South Africa’s relations with some countries on the continent are strained.

“South African [policy] positions have created some tensions in the continent particularly around Cote d’Ivoire, and to a lesser extent around Libya, where the country has not acted in support of its traditional allies, and its most important partner and competitor is Nigeria,” said Cilliers.

The question many are asking is why South Africa has chosen this route now. Cilliers says South Africa feels Africa needs to position itself more strongly in the global arena and that Dlamini-Zuma has the qualities to do so.

“They feel that the current chair of the African Union, Commissioner Ping, who is generally perceived to have done very well, but he is seen as perhaps not taking strong enough positions globally, particularly around issues such as Cote d’Ivoire and Libya,” Cilliers added.

Dlamini-Zuma has been a national minister since 1994. Most recently she has been credited with turning around the Home Affairs Ministry, which had been noted for corruption and mismanagement, but recently achieved a clean audit for the first time in 16 years. But it was as foreign minister in the decade leading to 2009 that she made her mark internationally and Cilliers says that she is greatly respected in Africa and around the globe.

“She is a formidable opponent, she prepares well, she is strategic, and she is seen as a no-nonsense person who cannot and will not be pushed around,“ Cilliers said.

Even so, questions remain about Zuma’s decision to nominate her at this time. There has been speculation that she is a reluctant candidate for the AU and that in fact Mr. Zuma may be keen to see her out of the running for a senior post in the African National Congress (ANC) at the party’s elective conference in December.

The ANC is bitterly divided ahead of the conference and Dlamini-Zuma is the only senior ANC official who enjoys support across the various divides in the party. She already appears on a list of the ANC Youth League which is currently deeply opposed to Zuma.

AU incumbent Ping is likely to get support from central, west and north African countries which could give him the necessary two-thirds majority to remain in his position. Cilliers says the difficulty now facing African leaders is to find a compromise that will avoid embarrassing South Africa, which has the continent’s largest economy.