Following a bruising election battle, Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini Zuma was elected as chairperson of the African Union Commission after beating the incumbent, Gabon's ambassador Jean Ping. Needless to say, Dlamini Zuma has her work cut out in view of the pressing problems facing the continent, not least in the current trouble spots including the crisis in Mali, conflict between Sudan and South Sudan and the insurgency in Somalia. When she resumes in a couple of months, Dlamini Zuma will come into office with considerable experience acquired after years of serving in high office in her native South Africa. Aside from the novelty of breaking the glass ceiling as the first woman to be elected to the position, a plus for Africa, she is also highly regarded in South Africa as one of the most competent ministers.
She served as minister for health under Nelson Mandela and then minister for foreign affairs under Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Montlanthe. In her current job as home affairs minister, she's been credited with sorting out the mess in that ministry including rooting out corruption.
All that experience should stand her in good stead in steering the ship of the AU Commission, an organization in need of administrative reforms.
Dlamini Zuma's emergence as the AU Commission's chairperson is particularly poignant due to the fact that she is from South Africa, the country with the largest and most developed economy on the continent with membership of some of the most influential global economic groupings including the G20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of emerging economies. Much has been made of the fact that by putting her forward as a candidate, South Africa had broken an unwritten agreement that big countries in the AU were not supposed to vie for the position of chairperson, making it the exclusive preserve of smaller countries.
However, having a South African as the chairperson of the AU Commission could be to the advantage of the continent despite misgivings in some African states. She will bring South Africa's political and economic clout to bear in fast tracking the implementation of AU's decisions. Dlamini Zuma will also be better placed to protect Africa's interests than had previously been the case when AU chairpersons were from less powerful countries. However, she will have to tread carefully in order not to attract criticism that she is throwing South Africa's weight around.
One issue that needs to be given the attention it deserves by the AU Commission is that of Africa's economic development. The preoccupation with politics and conflict resolution on the continent has tended to relegate economic issues to the back burner. There is need for more emphasis on economic development.
The theme of the AU's recent summit in Addis Ababa was to do with boosting intra African trade, but it was overshadowed by the euphoria over the election of Dlamini Zuma. The level of intra African trade is still abysmally low and needs to be boosted.
Admittedly many African countries have recorded some of the highest economic growth rates in the world in recent years, but in most cases they haven't trickled down to the impoverished African masses.
Much of Africa's growth has been fuelled by exports of commodities to China, Africa's largest trading partner. However, the pattern of trade with China appears to replicate the unequal trade relations with the West in which raw materials from Africa are exchanged for manufactured goods.
The issue of good governance also needs to be revisited. As foreign affairs minister under Mbeki, Dlamini Zuma was influential in setting up the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), programmes designed to promote good governance and transparency. There is a need to revamp them as it appears that they are no longer on the front burner of AU's concerns. Against the backdrop of conflicts and a new scramble for Africa by China, the West and the emerging economies, it is fitting that the new AU Commission's chairperson is a safe pair of hands who can be relied upon to bring a new impetus and sense of urgency in championing the African cause.