JOHANNESBURG - Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma, a veteran of the fight against apartheid who has served in the cabinet of every South African president since Nelson Mandela, now takes the top African Union (AU) job.
Elected by the 54-member pan-African bloc in Ethiopia on Sunday, she becomes the first woman to head the AU Commission. The Commission of the African Union serves as the AU’s administrative branch and as a secretariat of the Pan African Parliament. The Commission implements AU policies and coordinates the body’s activities and meetings.
The Commission elects its Chairperson to a four-year term.
An experienced diplomat, Dlamini-Zuma, 63, is known for her competent management and stern personality.
A doctor by training, she was health minister when Mandela became the country’s first black leader.
She went on to be foreign minister for a decade, earning praise for her shuttle diplomacy to end the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Her former husband President Jacob Zuma named her interior minister.
Although that was seen as a demotion, she won plaudits for turning around a ministry mired in gross mismanagement to achieve the first clean audit in 16 years.
In her campaign to win the pan-African bloc’s top job, she vowed to work at making it “a more efficient and effective organisation”.
And while she may have defeated the incumbent, French-speaker Jean Ping of Gabon, she has refused to be labelled as an English-speaking candidate.
“I am not Anglophone, I’m Zulu,” she said.
Once she got to work in the post, she added, she would be “implementing programmes ... agreed upon by everybody” rather than “consulting the Anglophone and the Francophone”.
Dlamini-Zuma has the backing of the predominantly English-speaking southern African region and is the first person from the region to hold the top commission job since the AU was created a decade ago.
“She takes her work very seriously,” said Prince Mashele, an analyst at the Centre for Politics and Research, who worked with Dlamini-Zuma’s ministry when she was foreign minister.
“She has the rare quality of putting up very good administrators,” Mashele said.
But she has raised eyebrows with her unsmiling demeanour.
“I thought she could do better if she was a little more affable,” said Mashele.
Born January 27 1949 in KwaZulu-Natal, Dlamini-Zuma took up politics in high school.
In the 1970s she went into exile, and studied in Britain at the universities of Bristol and Liverpool, while helping organise the anti-apartheid movement overseas.
She met Zuma while working as a paediatrician at a Swaziland hospital and became the polygamist president’s third wife in 1982. They divorced in 1998.
When the ban on the African National Congress was lifted in 1990, she returned home.
After the first democratic elections she was tapped by Mandela to transform the country’s segregated health system.
Dlamini-Zuma was born in Natal Province, the eldest of eight children. She completed high school at the Amanzimtoti Training College in 1967. In 1971, she started her studies in Zoology and Botany at the University of Zululand from where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree. She also studied medicine at the University of Natal.
During her studies in the early 1970s, Dlamini-Zuma became an active underground member of the then banned African National Congress. At the same time she was a member of the South African Students Organisation and elected its deputy president in 1976.
During the same year Dlamini-Zuma fled into exile; she completed her medical studies at the University of Bristol in 1978. She subsequently worked as a doctor at the Mbabane Government Hospital in Swaziland where she met her future husband, current ANC party and state President Jacob Zuma.
In 1985, she returned to the United Kingdom for further studies and worked for the ANC Regional Health Committee before working as director at the Health and Refugee Trust, a British non governmental organization.
After the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, she was appointed Health Minister under President Nelson Mandela.
During her tenure as Minister of Health she de-segregated the health system and gave poor people access to free basic healthcare.
When Mandela retired and President Thabo Mbeki took over, he appointed Dlamini-Zuma Foreign Minister, a position she continued to hold under caretaker President Kgalema Motlanthe. When he Jacob Zuma took over he appointed her Home Affairs Minister.In January this year, Dlamini-Zuma sought for the position of Chairperson of the African Union Commission, intending to obtain the office from incumbent Jean Ping. The resulting election was considered a bitter contest, with Dlamini-Zuma withdrawing from the third ballot. Ping, however, was unable to secure a two-thirds majority of the vote for his re-election, and was instead given an extension of his term by six months.
As head of the organisation’s executive arm, she faces immediate challenges as the AU tries to gain UN Security Council backing for a military intervention in northern Mali, where local and foreign al-Qaeda-linked jihadists seized control after a destabilising coup in the southern capital Bamako.
The Mali crisis, along with an army putsch in Guinea-Bissau and border clashes in April between Sudan and South Sudan have blotted Africa’s advances in recent years towards better governance and stability, accompanied by buoyant growth.
• News24/Wikipedia/Mail and Guardian