For South Africa’s beleaguered governing African National Congress the rise of a high-calibre woman leader should signal a turning of the pages, and lead to rejuvenation of the body politic. But sadly, for every accolade about the woman touted to be the next party president after Jacob Zuma ends his second term, there are questions, queries, and lots of red flags.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is an ambiguous ambitious figure, an operator and bureaucrat.
She reads the currents, positions herself, and collects the benefits. Hagiographies and more neutral observation alike show that she is a leader in her own right. This is far more than just a Zuma hoping to replace a Zuma.
The 68-year old comes with exile-struggle and transition credentials, extensive experience at top government level in health, foreign affairs and home affairs, and Africa-continental engagements that helped elevate her to head the African Union. She has skirted gaining ANC leadership positions, but her ascent comes through public deployment.
Granted, campaigning in the ANC’s succession race is at the “don’t-be-seen-to be-campaigning” and “let others do the work for you” stage. But South Africans are familiar with the main successor candidates’ pitches and strategic approaches, due to the abundance of proxy campaigning.
This is reminiscent of her divisive ascension to the African Union Commission. Her campaigners did the work for her –- much of the South African state was mobilised to bring in the political capital that would thwart both Francophone Africa and the convention that continental big powers should restrain ambition for the continent’s good.
It is more difficult to evaluate her organisational leadership of the ANC as she has never held a high-level party position. Her ascent comes through public deployment. Here she has gained solid credentials across her portfolios.
Yet blotches and question marks bedeck this new and gender-correct page that some in the ANC hope to turn. The ANC faction aligned to President Jacob Zuma, her former husband, is her dedicated backer.
Leadership is effective if it meets the needs of the time – and if it is really good it will define the needs. Yet a core doubt about her candidacy is that it promises more of the same ANC and government culture that has bedevilled the party recently.
President Zuma’s de facto radio endorsement of a woman candidate by any other name than Dlamini-Zuma reconfirmed that he hopes to entrust his future to the woman who will not rock the Zuma boat.
Chip off the same block
Dlamini-Zuma appears an unlikely candidate to bring a break with the past, and with it a renewal and reconnection of the ANC with its founding ideals and early-democracy optimism. This includes connecting with a younger generation.
To crown this shortlist of shortcomings, the two words used regularly to describe her – “incommunicative” and “not-people-friendly” – hardly elicit images to fit the bill. She is also intelligent, assertive, controlling, and takes no prisoners, characteristics of many strong leaders.
Digging deeper into the Dlamini-Zuma enigma, there is scant evidence of inspirational leadership, of qualities that will help restore respect for the presidency of South Africa.
She hardly leads from the front. Instead, she has fronted for several big men (presidents Thabo Mbeki and Zuma in particular) in the name of the national interest and to serve their ideological and reputational needs.
Hence the question that demands coldblooded assessment: is Dlamini-Zuma too embedded to fit the ANC bill? Are the similarities between her and the other Zuma just too tangible? Traits such as stubbornness, arrogance, and the sense of knowing best what the ANC needs come to mind.
Legacy as a minister
Dlamini-Zuma’s cabinet-level office holdings over the years reveal much about her blend of strategy and policy substance.
She held the prime position of minister of foreign affairs for a decade (1999-2009), under presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe. Mbeki’s African Renaissance and African Peer Review Mechanism offered her platforms to operate across Africa.
She embraced these, while never upstaging her boss. She did not oppose Mbeki, for example, when his quiet diplomacy ruled the roost in relations with Zimbabwe. Together they turned a blind eye to torture, vote rigging and human rights abuses in the name of continental brotherhood.
As minister of home affairs in the Zuma regime (2009-2012) Dlamini-Zuma was part of an auditing turnaround and improved efficiency. A succession of consultants and senior departmental bureaucrats leveraged the improvements. She took the bow, but did help improve departmental efficiency. This time around there appeared to be no scandals until it emerged in 2015 that she, a member of the local organising committee, had ordered the payment of the $10 million FIFA bribe, disguised as a football development contribution, for Caribbean football boss Jack Warner and two others.
Dlamini-Zuma’s stint as Minister of Health (1994-1999) facilitated important sectoral transitions into the democratic political order. As in most departments at the time, a post-apartheid order started emerging and new policies were introduced.
She brought anti-smoking legislation and took on the big pharmaceutical industry. The other Dlamini-Zuma, however, was in full flight. She helped open the sluice gates of state corruption when she commissioned the extravagantly funded anti-AIDS play Sarafina II.
As AU leader
The AU Commission chair was supposed to be a crowning glory, the stomping ground or finishing school on her way to presumed presidential glory back in South Africa. She tried to ring in the big ideas with her Vision 2063, but excelled rather through attention to bureaucratic matters.
She never overcame the ignominy and controversy of her election, and became synonymous with continental divisions, replete with suspicions of South Africa as the continental power that turned into a neo-colonialist force . When it came to big continental conflicts Dlamini-Zuma’s AU was likely to be silent. One of the big criticisms against her was that she always had one foot back in South Africa, awaiting the signal to enter the succession race and capture the presidential trophy.
What the ANC and the country need
The ANC needs to stop – decisively and decidedly – the culture of state looting by opaque, subterfuge actions and by open government contract. It needs to find ways to direct black economic empowerment into consistently credible, clean tracks. It needs to embrace each and every project to show that the ANC is on the straight and narrow, including lifestyle audits of its leadership. It needs to show through actions rather than smart words that leaders are there to serve the citizens of the country.
But Dlamini-Zuma is probably not the person who can deliver on this.
Well-placed sources who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, share the information that Dlamini-Zuma’s presidential plan is to ring the changes through getting service delivery sharpened up, arguing that “even if you got this contract in corrupt ways, let’s move on and get you to deliver; get those roads, bridges, houses, water pipes, to work!”
This would be the sound of rain on the roof for Dlamini-Zuma’s scandal-hopping and court-avoiding ex-husband – as well as for an expansive echelon of exploitative and corrupt tenderpreneurs and money launderers in, or associated with, the public sector in South Africa.
Such an approach might very well secure Dlamini-Zuma the top job should her current campaigners retain unity and momentum. Business as usual: but the ANC’s need for a reinvigorated political organisation is likely to go up in smoke.