The new chair is taking a leading role in negotiating an intervention force for Mali. Expectations are high that she will reform the institution and push development projects, but she cannot do so without the approval of member states.
Like a truly professional politician, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma steadfastly refused to see the irony. Here she was in Paris on 15 November, 2012, as chair of the African Union (AU) Commission, having just met with President François Hollande to discuss a French-backed intervention in Mali, a sovereign African state.
"The meeting went very well, and we discussed a lot of things, including Mali," Dlamini-Zuma told The Africa Report and its sister publication, Jeune Afrique, at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Paris.
"No liberated mind can think a development agenda can be funded by donors"
No major differences with France, the former colonial power, in Mali then? "We have looked at what needs to be done and how best to do it," Dlamini-Zuma explained in pragmatic mode.
"The situation in Mali is extremely complex. You had a coup, it means that elections have to happen, so as to have a government that has authority and legitimacy. There are people who have taken over the northern part of Mali, so we have to see how Mali can regain its territorial integrity."
So does Dlamini-Zuma support the use of force against the jihadists occupying northern Mali? Yes, if the negotiating track conclusively fails. But she counsels patience all round, like a tireless diplomat: "It's never too late to avoid war!"
A year ago, South Africa – where Dlamini-Zuma served as home affairs and foreign affairs minister – led Africa's diplomatic charge against France's intervention in two African states: first Côte d'Ivoire and then Libya. Indeed, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma told the AU summit in July 2012 that the main reason for the crisis in Mali was because of the West's bombardment of Libya and the ousting of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
President Zuma and Angola's President José Eduardo dos Santos had excoriated Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan for kowtowing to what they saw as France's neo-colonial policies in Côte d'Ivoire. Again, Dlamini-Zuma is sitting down with Nigeria's Jonathan diplomatically to discuss how to cooperate on the intervention in Mali.
Is this a case of 'Don't get mad, get even'?
Was Dlamini-Zuma's successful campaign for the chair of the AU Commission a really clever plan to turn the tables on Europe's former colonial powers? Or was it simply, as her campaign lobbyists said, that after playing a key role in establishing the AU a decade ago, South Africa wanted to strengthen its international influence?
There is no question that Dlamini-Zuma's election was a huge boost to her country's international kudos at a time of mounting concerns of political developments there. Domestic critics who had predicted that South Africa's campaign for the top AU job would end in tears had to eat their words.
"Dlamini-Zuma's election is a huge confirmation of South Africa's diplomatic weight in Africa," says Jakkie Cilliers at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). "It's a feather in the cap of the Zuma government, which worked hard on her election. It demonstrates South Africa's considerable leverage [...] and the regard with which she is held on the continent."
Now Dlamini-Zuma insists she is an unrepentant internationalist: "I am the chairperson of the African Union Com- mission; the fact that I was born in South Africa should have no bearing on what I do here." She makes it clear that she has no intention of fighting last year's battles between Southern Africa and West Africa, and that indeed everyone is on the same page on the Mali dossier.
Comfort Ero, director of the International Crisis Group's Africa programme, says Dlamini-Zuma's diplomatic experience will help in dealing with the Anglophone-Francophone divide that still haunts Africa.
But she also has to find ways to get the AU to work better with Africa's regional organisations: "Mali, therefore, becomes the biggest test of how to navigate and rebuild those relationships. ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] has a vast experience in peace and security, but it is going through its own upheavals at a political level."
According to Ero, who worked on peacekeeping in Liberia and Sierra Le- one, it is as much for ECOWAS as for Dlamini-Zuma to improve relations. "It is an important moment for ECOWAS to rebuild its own image. One of the biggest concerns, particularly in relation to West Africa, is whether she is projecting South African foreign policy. I think what you will see her try to do is to dispel any notion that she represents South Africa."
That will be challenging, says Ero: "What we have noticed in the past six months has been a degree of reluctance by ECOWAS to give way to the AU. What Dlamini-Zuma needs to do is to reassure ECOWAS that it is very much the AU sup- porting ECOWAS. We should remember that Mali is not just a regional problem but a continental one that gets to the heart of the AU's security architecture."
According to the ISS's Cilliers, Dlamini-Zuma is "a strong person, individually very warm, but absolutely no pushover." As South Africa's foreign minister, she gained first-hand experience of the mechanics of the AU and is said to have earned respect for her refusal to stand back on issues that she felt passionately about.
Reach out from Addis
When she was foreign minister, diplomats in Tshwane/Pretoria, the political capital of South Africa, complained about her inaccessibility.
One hears fears that she will be equally remote in her new position in Addis. But if she is to heal the rifts caused by the election, Dlamini-Zuma will have to devote time to outreach.
While promising to continue the AU Commission's work on peace and security – where the AU is judged to have had its greatest success – Dlamini-Zuma insists this will not be at the expense of economic and social development.
"Conflicts and conflict resolution, as important as they may be, have to be balanced with development," she says.
"There can be no development without peace and no peace without development."
Abdalla Hamdok, deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, agrees that peace and security have to be seen in the development context: "Peace works towards creating the enabling environment for development. It's not an end in itself."
He advises Dlamini-Zuma to start a process of reflection. "There is no shortage of resolutions and declarations. We need to take stock of what we have done over the last few years and see how can we move beyond declarations to implementation."
Hamdok would like to see an economic transformation within the continent, with Africa "starting its ambitious infrastructure projects, developing its human resources, its energy sector and its productive capacity, and generating employment to uplift millions of Africans out of poverty."
He believes that Dlamini-Zuma has the ability to make this transformation a reality. "She brings to this office a very rich experience. She is an excellent leader to take this continent to further heights. I expect a lot to happen," he says.
She has identified several priority areas for the AU: food security and agricultural productivity, the effective use of Africa's natural resources, the improvement of infrastructure, youth development, the reduction of maternal and child mortality, and gender equality.
African women have high expectations of the commission's first female chairperson. "For me and for all other African women, we cannot but be proud and feel that that in itself is significant," says Bience Gawanas, a former African Union commissioner for social affairs. "The face of the AU is definitely changing,"
Member states tie hands
Whether or not the AU will be able to fulfil its security commitments at the same time as making progress on development will largely be dependent upon the funding available.
At a business banquet in South Africa in October, Dlamini-Zuma admitted that she had been shocked to discover that external partners finance 97% of the AU's programmes. "No liberated mind can think their development agenda can be funded by donors," she said.
"We should be more self-reliant. Our governments must put money [in the AU]." She is confronted by the problem that member states are reluctant to pay their existing dues, let alone agree to increase them.
Recognising this reluctance, the AU Assembly set up a High-Level Panel on Alternative Sources of Financing in 2011. Led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the panel recommended a number of proposals for more sustainable funding, including a $2 tax on hotel stays and a $5 levy on flights to and from Africa – ECOWAS has successfully applied a similar scheme.
However, a number of AU member states have registered strong opposition to the panel's report, leaving Dlamini-Zuma with no clear plan as to how to redress the funding imbalance.
Expectations that Dlamini-Zuma will effect real change are high. Too high, according to Thabo Mbeki, who expressed concern that she had been set up to fail. He believes that the structure of the AU restricts the chairperson's ability to take radical action.
Cilliers agrees: "She is now an international civil servant and she will find herself slapped down very quickly if she goes outside the mandate the member states provide her [with]."
She is clearly aware of the constraints under which she operates. Referring to herself in her accession speech as "a humble servant of the African continent and its people", she pledged that the commission would do its best to implement the decisions assigned to it.
She cleverly deflected any potential criticism for failure by stating that "member states and the RECs [regional economic communities] are the coalface and main agents for the implementation of the bulk of those decisions" ●