When Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma spoke to a crowd of international journalists about her election as the new Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), she shrugged aside the praise and admiration that had followed her since the news of her appointment, writes Chris Bathembu.
She insisted on being seen as an “ordinary African citizen” who just wants to make a contribution towards the continent’s prosperity.
Her reaction throughout has truly been a testament of her humility and commitment to serve, qualities that have become synonymous with Dlamini Zuma ever since many South Africans were first introduced to her as Health Minister in 1994.
The 63-year-old mother of four daughters comes across as soft and easy-going, but those who have worked with her can tell you that behind closed doors, Dlamini Zuma can be tough when she wants the job done, and unlike many bosses, she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.
In her modesty, she silently wonders how she could be such a highly regarded person when she is just, as she puts it, doing her job.
“I would like to make a contribution like any African citizen. I would like to make a contribution to our organisation. This is not a personal victory or a country victory, we have to work together with every single member state and work together for the benefit of our continent, no one woman can do it.
“The future of our continent is inextricably linked with that of the rest of humanity, the world over. Africa must therefore take its rightful place among nations of the world as an equal, reliable partner, and full member of the international community.”
In view of the work she has done in turning around the Home Affairs Department and her previous superb record in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, many South Africans were not surprised that 37 African Heads of State and Government decided that she was fit to lead the AUC, a powerful executive arm of the African Union.
In her new role, Dlamini Zuma will have to ensure that the crucial decisions that are taken by the continental body are followed up on and implemented – a task she admits will not be easy. She will need all the hands she can use.
“I believe no one individual can make a difference. I believe even in my own ministry that I’m as good as my team, so it’s very important to develop and to have a team spirit so that you work and can rely on your team. Yes, I’ll be a leader of a team but, I’ll be as good as my team.”
On a continent where politics is still dominated by men, she encourages women not to be frightened to compete for top leadership positions where ever they may be in society. This is not surprising, coming from someone who was the only woman in the South African Bid Committee to Zurich and included Nobel Peace Laureates former President Nelson Mandela, Former President FW de Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, where South Africa was awarded the right to host the most beautiful spectacle in the world – the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Minister Dlamini Zuma is also the current Co-convenor of the National Progressive Women’s Movement of South Africa, having been launched in Bloemfontein on 9 August 2006 during the 50th Anniversary Celebrations of the historic 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings.
She believes women are making headway in political leadership and that the AU is leading by example.
“The AU has really taken a lead compared to other organisations on giving the women places of leadership. If you recall, the AU decided that there will be equal commissioners who are male and female and the heads of state [made] a solemn declaration that women must take their rightful place in society in our countries and in the AU as a whole and they have lived up to that.
“I would like, on behalf of all the women of our continent, to thank the heads of state for putting in a woman for the first time [in this position] and also to say the work only starts now. I will need a lot of support from all my sisters and brothers.”
A shrewd politician and leader of note, Dlamini Zuma plans to introduce a more pro-active approach in addressing the conflicts that continue to inflict the continent. With her experience in peacekeeping missions, it is easy to believe that she would do well in neutralising the tensions and political instability currently facing the AU.
Working as part of the former OAU collective, she has participated in a number of delegations to help bring about peace, stability, development and prosperity to the African continent. She has also led a number of peace initiatives to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Comoros and Lesotho, amongst others.
“I think first of all it needs to be understood that the AU is not responsible for world peace – that is the duty of the United Nations Security Council. But, having said that, we have an obligation to keep our continent safe and free of conflicts and that is why we took a decision to establish the AU Peace and Security Council.
“The council is helpful because in instances where we feel that the UN is slow in responding, we can put our own measures in place until such time that the UN steps in. We must create the conditions to, amongst others, contribute towards global peace and security, sustainable development, and mediate against the effects of climate change.
“In pursuance of this objective, as a Commission, we will continue to build on the work of those who came before us and we will continue to work with regional bodies around the world, the UN and all its agencies, including all our co-operating partners to ensure they can contribute to helping us to achieve our collectively defined priorities.
“Whenever possible, we will try to act expeditiously in situations as they arise and I don’t know what situation will arise but I can only say we will do our best. It is true that women tend to be more practical in doing things in life – that’s who they are – and they tend to be able to do many things at once, we multi-task as women,” she jokingly says.
In true comradeship, Dlamini Zuma extends an olive branch to her contender Jean Ping and those who did not support her bid to lead the AUC. She is aware that to lead the organisation effectively, she will need the cooperation of the entire continent.
“There has been a consensus on this election, the heads of state and government decided to vote this way and we need to work together for the sake of our continent.
“I think what is important now is to say we are here to unite around the programmes and see how we can implement those programme united towards a common goal together. My view is that I’m an African citizen, I am loyal to the African Union and I will serve the African Union. I’ll work collectively with every member state. We assume this position with a vision that says our continent should grow and take its rightful place among the nations of the world. I plan to work with all regions for the benefit of our continent and to achieve that goal.
“I am aware that I shall only be able to discharge this responsibility by working with all member states and the talent that exists in our continent, for all the regions, to ensure a better life for all our peoples. Our founders, heroes and heroines of Pan-Africanism, held a vision of a united, economically and politically emancipated continent at peace with itself and the world. The challenge we face is to translate this vision into a reality.”
She doesn’t believe that the tough contest for the position that preceded the election would lead to division within the AU.
“There will not be any divisions because there is an understanding that in whatever we do, we have to put the interests of the continent first.