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Dr Dlamini Zuma’s win does not herald smooth sailing for South African foreign policy

After what seemed like an uphill battle against incumbent African Union (AU) Commission chair Jean Ping of Gabon, former minister for Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has secured the confidence of 37 out of 51 states in Africa to become the newest leader of the AU’s executive arm. While her victory is undoubtedly a triumph for the country, and indeed women everywhere, South Africa should not expect plain sailing in the months and years ahead, as this success will only catalyse more scrutiny of its foreign policy from its African neighbours.

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has received much criticism for what many believed were over-ambitious tactics in attempting to secure Dlamini-Zuma’s election. After a failed attempt at winning the contest in January – as well as what must have been some incredibly robust negotiation behind the scenes – South African diplomats managed to secure enough votes to ensure Dlamini-Zuma would take up the reins at the AU with a view to revitalising a moribund and floundering organisation. Her experience in the former Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and more recently her time improving the appalling performance of the Department of Home Affairs, meant that Dlamini-Zuma was touted as the candidate to bring about a new era for the AU – one in which the body could perhaps legitimately escape comparisons with its corrupt, ineffective predecessor, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) or so-called “Dictators’ Club”.


The acrimonious nature of the election contest between Dlamini-Zuma and Ping was undeniable. South Africa was seen to be hubristic and insensitive (particularly when the South African delegation celebrated the stalemate at January’s conference), and Ping fired his own missiles in the form of press releases lambasting the South African approach to the contest. At its core, the spiteful tone of the election reflected broader resentment towards South Africa from its non-SADC neighbours; something that has been brewing ever since South Africa started to assert itself diplomatically post-1994. Although much of the media’s attention focused on the stratified support for Dlamini-Zuma and Ping from postcolonial Anglo- and Francophone countries respectively, some of the South African candidate’s largest detractors came in the form of Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya. Added to ECOWAS’s strong showing of support for Ping, it seemed unlikely that Dlamini-Zuma would get the nod from other African nations, particularly after the aforementioned stalemate in January.


This explains why this victory is so significant for South Africa. Going against the grain of the ‘unwritten rule’ that only smaller states should seed candidates for the AU Commission chair, South Africa proffered a contender that many believe to be capable of turning the AU around. Despite what DIRCO has described as a ‘victory for South African diplomacy’, this is now where the work truly begins. Indeed, South Africa will have to work hard to repair the cracks of resentment in the AU’s dam wall, lest the entire project of African rejuvenation crumbles.

Of particular importance in the coming years will be South African foreign policy on the continent: if anything, it will face even further scrutiny than before. The spotlight on Dlamini-Zuma will only serve to illuminate every nook and cranny of South African policy abroad, and the country’s more robust competitors in Africa will undoubtedly seek opportunities to cry foul at any presumed instance of Pretoria’s interference in AU affairs. While it seems that the likelihood of Dlamini-Zuma acting as Pretoria’s puppet is virtually nil, perception is everything in the diplomacy game, and South Africa will need to tread even more carefully than before in continental matters.

South Africa should be equally concerned about constructing a foreign policy that does not further alienate the continent. Recent action in the international realm has probably not left the AU with much confidence in South Africa’s political finesse, despite Dlamini-Zuma’s victory. After unceremoniously treading on Nigeria and ECOWAS’s toes in the Côte d’Ivoire election crisis; reneging on its commitment to Resolution 1973 which saw a no-fly zone implemented over Libya; and again recently inflaming tensions with Nigeria over the yellow fever vaccination deportation fiasco, South Africa is already on unsteady ground. It should seek to consolidate and build relations with the countries on the continent as much as possible. The country’s somewhat erratic recent policy decisions have been cause for concern at multilateral fora such as the UN: what seems like a lack of any coherent international agenda has only cultivated suspicion and dismay amongst former allies.

As a result, South Africa should seek to construct an overarching strategic vision for its foreign policy – one that is more practicable than current interpretations of its ‘African agenda’ foreign policy pillar. At present, it appears that the ‘African agenda’ needs to be unpacked, to ensure that South Africa can adequately represent issues of concern to Africa are on the international agenda. Now is the time for South Africa to seriously consider the long-term vision and structure of its foreign policy so that it may not only positively contribute to the revitalisation of the AU, but also repair fractured relationships between African states, to ensure that the continent assumes a mantle of responsibility, accountability and efficacy in world affairs. South Africa now has the opportunity to assume the role and status it has so desperately sought in world affairs. Its subsequent performance will dictate not only the country’s future on the continent, but also the future of Africa as a whole.

Lyndsey Duff is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD). She writes in her personal capacity.

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