On Sunday, 15 July, South Africa's Home Affairs Minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was elected as head of the African Union (AU) Commission, replacing Dr Jean Ping from Gabon. This comes after six months of uncertainty following the 18th AU Summit held in January 2012, where both Dr Dlamini-Zuma and Dr Ping failed to secure the two-thirds majority vote that is required to win the election.
There is a perception among some African countries that South Africa 'bullied' its way into the position, and for this reason they may try to prove that Dr Dlamini-Zuma cannot achieve anything by deliberately not co-operating with her.
Following the January Summit, South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) engaged in a much more aggressive campaign, for which it has received much criticism, but which ultimately led to Dr Dlamini-Zuma winning. Given South Africa's image as one of the most powerful countries on the continent, many members of the AU may feel inclined to resist Dr Dlamini-Zuma's leadership.
However, according to Dr Jakkie Cilliers, the ISS Executive Director, South Africa won for several reasons. Firstly, most AU members did not want to experience another six months of uncertainty.
Secondly, countries like Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar could not vote as they are currently under sanctions. It is likely that at least the first two countries would have voted for Dr Ping. Also, Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan and Ethiopia's President Meles Zenawi, who are both supporters of Dr Ping, were not at the Summit and that might had have some implications in terms of last-minute lobbying.
Thirdly, members of SADC remained united behind Dr Dlamini-Zuma.
According to Ambassador Olusegun Akinsanya, the ISS Regional Director, it is believed that election fatigue and expediency also had an effect. In addition, there was a spontaneous and positive response to Benin's President and AU chairperson Boni Yayi's opening call for unity among the African leaders in order to address the more pressing challenges facing the continent.
It is equally important to highlight the historical significance of the election. In addition to being a candidate from one of the major powers in Africa, Dr Dlamini-Zuma has broken the tradition of this being a male-dominated position since the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as well as the ban on the so-called big countries standing.
A particular challenge that Dr Dlamini-Zuma faces at the moment is that of the subsequent divisions within the AU. Another challenge will be to ease the acrimonious relationships that resulted from the way in which South Africa campaigned for this position. Lastly, Dr Dlamini-Zuma will also have to address the bureaucratic malaise that has set into the AU.
Given Dr Dlamini-Zuma's record as a minister in South Africa, she may have just the right political and administrative skills to address some of the challenges and problems facing the commission. Assessing her on merit alone, she certainly has what the AU needs to improve its functionality.
In addition, having been a key actor and witness in the transformation of the OAU to the AU, Dr Dlamini-Zuma certainly has an intimate knowledge of the pan-African organisation. The newly sworn-in AU Committee chairperson has already made it clear that she views the members of the AU as being equal, and that she does not believe some states should have veto power on important decisions simply because of their economic power.
Thus, in spite of the questions over South Africa's campaign tactics, it is expected that peace and security, democracy and good governance initiatives will be consolidated under Dr Dlamini-Zuma's leadership. An important question, however, is whether the AU truly can be reformed and whether there will always be the necessary political will. Dr Dlamini-Zuma may be politically skilled, but if she faces too much resistance, she will not be able to bring about the change that the AU needs.