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Mrs Dlamini-Zuma’s election as the new Chair of the African Union Commission signals a watershed moment for the continental body. The result, following a hot contested and well strategised race that stretched over six months, should enable the AU to get back to business following January's impasse.
Now dubbed the ‘Iron Lady of Africa’, the new AU Commission Chair will certainly have her work cut out.
The first order of business will be to establish trust and confidence. The result signalled that a good majority of member-states were not prepared to allow another stalemate to emerge, that would have kept the AU in limbo for another six months. This suggests that this time around the election process was more about ensuring a resolution, as much as it was a victory for the better or stronger candidate.
With this in mind, Mrs Dlamini-Zuma will have to ensure that those member-states who swung their vote in her favour can be re-assured that they made the right decision.
But, perhaps, the more compelling task is to win the hearts and minds of those states which either voted against her or who spoilt their ballots in the final round of voting on Sunday. This will prove challengingly: one observer notes that these member-states ‘will hold her back’.
Yet Mrs Dlamini-Zuma is not known to back down. So how she crafts her leadership role and builds unity amongst the 54 member-states, with her recognised style of governance, is going to be a significant entry point for creating an efficient and effective AU.
Second, a critical area in transforming the AU into a capable institution is to ensure that the cogs of the bureaucracy are able and functional. This is where Mrs Dlamini-Zuma’s past experience will prove valuable. But it could also become a source of tension - if there is a lack of consensus or urgency on the agenda that she wants to push forward. It is important that she builds support from the programme commissioners and their functionaries if more focussed and effective implementation is to take place.
Lest we forget, the AU bureaucracy is heterogeneous in character with a diverse set of cultural dynamics. Therefore the new AUC Chair will have to understand where the levers lie that promote collaboration and cooperation in making her vision an AU one, instead of a top-down directive.
Third, one of the more immediate concerns that confront Mrs Dlamini-Zuma is to harness a financially independent AU. This is paramount if the AU is to become the effective body that SADC states promoted during the election campaign. Currently almost 90% of the AU’s programme budget is externally financed. At the same time pledges that have been made by external partners have been slow to reach the continental body, thereby compromising its effectiveness. Therefore an efficient AU also means a financially viable AU.
This leads to the fourth consideration, namely ensuring impartiality. Mrs Dlamini-Zuma has already indicated that it will not be South Africa that will be occupying the AUC Chair. But it is going to be a delicate issue given the sensitivities and suspicions that have been levelled against her candidacy and the country she comes from.
Equally important is for Mrs Dlamini-Zuma to navigate through the expectations of Pretoria and SADC, the members-states who voted for her and external donors who may see this as a political opening for influence and leverage without compromising her integrity. All of this would be done while being constantly under the proverbial microscope.
Victory can be bitter-sweet. Being the first woman to head up a continental body is an incredible feat. But it also means that Mrs Dlamini-Zuma needs to set the bar above the rest in delivering a transformed and modernised AU.
Written by Sanusha Naidu, Senior Researcher, Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA) SAFPI Programme in Cape Town
An earlier version of this commentary was commissioned by the SABC