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Whether it was the Ebola outbreak, drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, famines, the return of the god-President, the International Criminal Court or popular uprisings by young people demanding revolutionary change, the out-going Chairperson of the African Union Commission failed Africa. Her successor must be someone who understands, cares about and has a vision for the continent and its people.

In April 2016, Dr. Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma announced that she had decided to return to South Africa rather than run for a second term as the Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union (AU). For close observers this did not really come as a surprise as she appeared to spend less time on the institution than she did navigating the entrails of South Africa’s politics.  Ahead of her announcement, the Mail and Guardian reported on 29 March that Dlamini-Zuma was “likely to return to South Africa to run for a top ANC leadership position, possibly for president to succeed her ex-husband, President Jacob Zuma.”[1] Dlamini-Zuma is a leading member of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) and was for 16 years spouse of the incumbent President. Their divorce was reportedly formalized in 1982.

Later this month in Kigali, Rwanda, the Summit of the Heads of State and Governments of the AU will elect a successor to Dr. Dlamini-Zuma. As they prepare to do that, it is appropriate to look back at her tenure so that the institution avoids the kind of errors that made it such a lamentable misadventure.

It did not have to be so. A trained paediatrician, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma arrived at the African Union on the back of a stellar public service and political career in South Africa where she served four successive presidents, including Nelson Mandela, as minister responsible for health, foreign affairs, and home affairs.

When she arrived in Addis Ababa to assume office as the Chairperson of the AU Commission in October 2012, many believed that Dr. Dlamini-Zuma would usher in a brave new era in the history of the institution. She boasted many firsts: the first woman to head the AU; the first head of the AU from southern Africa and the first head of the AU with liberation credentials. In the end, she will be remembered for another first: the first head of the AU to leave as an utter failure. Her biggest legacy will probably be her eponymous Twitter handle, mostly famous for its preoccupation with fatuous nonsense.

On 9 June 2016, Le Monde Afrique ran an article asking in effect: “How Did Mrs Zuma Mess Up (the AU)?”[2], asserting that her tenure was characterized by a lack of vision and silence that “accelerated the decline of the AU.” All these failings were willful, not inadvertent

When Dr. Dlamini-Zuma began her tenure in 2012, the AU confronted significant challenges in the spheres of peace, security and governance in Africa, as well as institutional reform and social affairs. Like T.S. Eliot’s Macavity, she looked “outwardly respectable.” Like Macavity also, she was just “not there.”

As she arrived, South Sudan was wrestling with a transition to stable independence that threatened to get quite bloody. On the governance front, accountable government in Africa confronted growing authoritarianism with far reaching implications for peace and security in many parts of the continent. Accountability for grave crimes by Africa’s leaders faced frustration in Kenya and Sudan. Institutionally, many countries were in arrears of their dues and the AU was increasingly dependent on foreign governments and donors for its running.

During her tenure, Africa confronted multiple social challenges: Ebola in West Africa; Yellow Fever in parts of Southern Africa; climate change and food security around the Sahel and Horn of Africa, as well as an international migration crisis.

On each and all of these challenges, Dr Dlamini-Zuma was out to lunch or blissfully missing in action. Take South Sudan, for instance. Under the watch of Dr. Dlamini-Zuma, South Sudan descended into fratricide. Following a lead provided by anyone but her, the AU constituted a Commission of Inquiry chaired by Nigeria’s former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, which reported in early 2015 recommending a mix of measures, including judicial accountability. Thereafter, the report went cold. Under her watch, the relationship of the AU and the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose Prosecutor is another daughter of Africa – The Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda – collapsed.

At the Summit that elected her as Chair of the AU Commission in 2012, a High Level Panel on alternative funding for the AU again chaired by former President Obasanjo had reported that “the current system of statutory contributions, which had been in place since the OAU days, has been deemed to no longer be adequate to meet the growing financing needs of the Union due to greater operational requirements and increased scope of activities”. As she leaves, this report decorates the shelves of Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s $200 million AU palace, constructed and donated by the Chinese. Her lasting legacy is that civil society will be excluded from the AU summit that elects her successor.

Under the watch of Dr. Dlamini-Zuma, the continent was allowed to squander the energies released by popular uprisings against authoritarianism. When Egypt’s army set upon young people whose only crime was to dare to dream and organize for a country in freedom in 2013, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma lost her voice.

Under her watch, the god-President returned. In Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, Rwanda and Uganda, elected presidents tore up the constitutions under which they were elected and installed themselves gods. In Burundi, where another president’s desire for god-Presidency turned murderous, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma conveniently outsourced her responsibilities and disappeared. Her dereliction on governance now threatens the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the desire of the incumbent president for god-Presidency meets a country unwilling to accept man as god.

In Burkina Faso where the people managed to topple their presidential serial killer, Blaise Compaore, after 27 years of repressive power, it was in spite of Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s complicit abdication not because of her leadership.

It was in social affairs, however, that the extent of Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s dereliction would confound even her few most ardent admirers. As a trained medical professional, many credited her with the qualifications to care when Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) came calling in February 2014. Characteristically, however, she managed to abdicate on that too.

While EVD held sway in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma avoided those countries. By contrast, Dr. Donald Kaberuka, her counterpart at the African Development Bank (AfDB) took to the road to visit the affected countries, raise resources and compel the world to act. While Dr. Kaberuka showed his mettle in this most difficult of situations, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma was missing conspicuously.

Under Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s watch, thousands of Africans drowned crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. Many more Africans have been slaughtered by the extremist violence of Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They are uncounted, unknown, unnamed and un-mourned. To their murder, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma offered neither compassion nor counterpoise. Under her, the African life could well be worthless.

Two years after she was elected to Chairperson of the AU, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma allowed her ex-husband to put her name forward on the ANC’s list for the 2014 general election in South Africa. It therefore became evident that for her, Addis Ababa was, from the start, a place to cool her heels, preserve herself and prepare to collect South Africa’s highest political prize like a promised alimony settlement.

In one word, Dr. Dlamini-Zuma didn’t know Africa and only cared about her ambitions back home. She just didn’t care about the African.

When Africa’s Heads of State meet later this July in Kigali to elect the next Chairperson of the AU Commission, they should draw a line under the misadventure that has been Dr. Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure. Candidates should be required to present a coherent vision of the Africa they wish to lead and demonstrate an interest in the continent and its peoples. A debate among the leading candidates would be worthwhile. Politicians, like Dr. Dlamini-Zuma, in pursuit of other distractions, should be told they are surplus to requirements. The AU should look for someone who knows the continent and cares about its people.

As Dr. Dlamini-Zuma slinks back to the deepening sleaze that threatens to unravel her march to the prize in South Africa that she treasures above the lives of ordinary Africans, many will be forgiven for screaming: good riddance, Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma….!

* Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is Former Chair, National Human Rights Commission, Nigeria. The views expressed here are personal.



[2] « Comment Madame Dlamini-Zuma a plombé l’Union Africaine », available at :



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Comments (10)

  • Lefamotloung's picture

    For Africa to rise and realise it's vision, such a responsibility can not be in the hands of one individual. All challenges mentioned were there before her, and they will continue so long as we take a passive attitude and be quick on finding fault. We all have to be ready ti pull in the same direction; not leaders who put their interest ahead of others. Only then we can create a better Africa for all.

    Jul 08, 2016
  • kgamphes's picture

    Anyone who takes such a position must have some confidence for delivery. I am sure she did. Her first call for support was South Africa and I'm not sure if we fully supported her. Her second call was the ex chairpersons and their networks. No matter how strong you are without this backing so you cannot perform. Her final speech must inform us better.

    Jul 09, 2016
  • kgamphes's picture

    This is sad. She remains one of the few powerful leaders I respect. She took this leadership position at the prime of her competency and she meant to do well. Something must have prevented her to deliver....I look forward to read her exit report.

    Jul 09, 2016
  • BShakwane's picture

    This article is quite biased. The issues that Dr Zuma is accused of neglecting have been an African reality for decades now; security issues, rogue presidents, unrest, war as well as heightened vulnerability to health issues. Speaking of Ebola, the World Health Organisation faced a nightmarish situation containing it in Africa because of dysfunctional and almost non- existent health systems. Africa has a legacy of being dysfunctional and every country contributes in some way to the overall continental dysfunction. Most of these problems will outlive our great great grand- children. Dr Zuma couldn't have fixed them in 4 years. I for one remain proud of her

    Jul 10, 2016
  • David Blyth's picture
    David Blyth

    The article talks of this woman's "stellar public service" - it seems they are ignore her role in the Sarafina 2 debacle. She is part of the ANC and that speaks volumes! Look at the state of South Africa after two decades of ANC mismanagement - does Africa want or need that?

    Jul 10, 2016
  • laro.khotseng's picture

    It is true that all these challenges have always been there; and it is true that Dlamini-Zuma is a part of a collective of leaders. But that misses the point. What I see as the point of the article is Dlamini-Zuma's absence at each of those crises.

    Jul 13, 2016
  • Mampurane's picture

    I want to believe that, she took up the job knowing its challenges. Africa 2063 provided a platform for majority of Africans to map up a future Africa, got them involved in understanding what an integrated Africa which is at peace with itself is. A role of that magnitude cannot be shouldered by one woman! it is a biased article that only serves to reflect on the negatives. If it is indeed good ridden, why did they struggle to replace her, she is serving an extended period, is it not?

    Jan 16, 2017
  • Mampurane's picture

    Iyoo! this is way too bias. Africa has a vision for the next 50 years, the African Agenda 2063. The Task of such magnitude cannot rest on the shoulders of one woman, surrounded by men who have not sobered up to democratic governance. The blame cannot solely rest on one individual

    Jan 16, 2017
  • molebatsi.masedi's picture

    Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma did what was possible with resources and support available. Fixing Africa is an act of all Africa. Apportioning blame of failure of AU Commission on Dr Dlamini-Zuma is a subversion of truth.

    Aug 19, 2017
  • chris.ekerold's picture

    Let’s start with her role as health minister in the first democratic government. Dlamini-Zuma, a qualified medical doctor, was faced with a massive and unenviable challenge in formulating health systems for nine new provincial structures. “It is perhaps understandable, then, that in the first few years of the new government the health minister neglected to consult with civil society,” academic Nicoli Nattrass writes in Mortal Combat: AIDS Denialism and the Struggle for Antiretrovirals in South Africa (2007). “However, the cost of this was poor policy decision making and exposure to angry protests from civil society, as she discovered during the Sarafina II scandal of 1996.” The Sarafina II scandal saw European Union funding to the tune of R14,27-million channelled to playwright Mbongeni Ngema after he won a contract to write a play about Aids. As a result of concern from opposition parties over the amount being spent on a single play, the matter was referred to the public protector for investigation. The public protector’s report found that the expenditure was unauthorised, the initiative mismanaged and that both Dlamini-Zuma and her department’s director-general, Olive Shisana, had misled Parliament and the media. As major a scandal as this was in its time, it was overshadowed the following year by the Virodene scandal – in which Dlamini-Zuma played a pivotal role. When two scientists approached the health minister in 1997 and informed her that they were conducting an unofficial trial on Aids patients using an antifreeze solution they called Virodene, Dlamini-Zuma was sufficiently impressed to invite them to present their findings to Cabinet. This was a blatant breach of the protocol which says medicines have to go through the processes of the Medical Research Council (MRC), on which Dlamini-Zuma had previously worked. The MRC subsequently identified a range of problems with the Virodene trial and ordered it to cease. Dlamini-Zuma’s response was to initiate a 'review team' to evaluate the MRC, which recommended that the MRC itself should cease to exist. In the absence of permission from the MRC, however, Virodene had to be tested outside the country, with financial help from the ANC. “No evidence of its effectiveness has ever been published,” writes Nattrass. In 1998 Dlamini-Zuma was also responsible for suspending pilot projects testing the use of antiretrovirals to prevent mother-to-child-transmission, claiming that they were “unaffordable”. Eastern Cape doctor (and Pan Africanist Congress health secretary) Costa Gazi was subsequently fined for slander after suggesting that Dlamini-Zuma be tried for manslaughter for not supporting the provision of the drugs to HIV-positive mothers. “[Dlamini-Zuma] came in with very good intent,” Section27’s Mark Heywood told Daily Maverick on Tuesday. “The area where she struck her greatest success was in the anti-smoking regulations she introduced.” (Dlamini-Zuma introduced new laws to crack down on smoking in public.) Heywood added that she put in place some important legislative reform, but didn’t always see the policies through. Summing up her performance, Heywood said: “I would give her a 4/10, to be honest. But she was in a difficult period. Being the first health minister was never going to be easy.” What about Dlamini-Zuma’s stint as foreign affairs minister, a position she held for a decade? Supporters point to the role Dlamini-Zuma played in helping broker peace deals in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But there are other less positive aspects of her tenure. Earlier this year, Dlamini-Zuma was implicated in the payment of $10-million to the infamous 2010 Fifa World Cup Diaspora Legacy Programme. A December 2007 letter sent by Danny Jordaan to Fifa states that Jordaan “had a discussion with the minister of foreign affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma”, who said the funds should be paid over. But perhaps more damning is the notion that Dlamini-Zuma’s time as foreign minister took a strategic form that is hard to discern at all. “The conventional wisdom is that it's one of those areas where you have to think long term,” University of Cape Town politics professor Anthony Butler told the Daily Maverick. “Under [Jacob] Zuma, you had a clear change of direction. You can disagree with it, but you can see what it is: developing strategic south-south partnerships and so on. It wasn't clear what Dlamini-Zuma's strategy was, other than following Mbeki's [African Renaissance] project." When it comes to Dlamini-Zuma’s time at the Home Affairs ministry, surely we’re on safer ground. After all, it was under Dlamini-Zuma’s stewardship that Home Affairs received its first clean audit. The 'turnaround' of Home Affairs was trumpeted and celebrated. There is a fair amount of evidence to suggest, however, that Dlamini-Zuma profited from incremental work which started long before she took office – and that she benefited from extremely dedicated and talented department director-generals whose time at Home Affairs began years before hers. In particular, Mavuso Msimang should be credited with much of the clean-up. As early as 2007, two years before Dlamini-Zuma became minister, Msimang was being hailed as “Home Affairs’ turnaround man”. Said Butler: "There have been studies on the Home Affairs turnaround. They showed these painstaking reforms introduced with huge teams of consultants. But after a year of Dlamini-Zuma in the job, people started claiming she'd fixed it." Considered from these angles, Dlamini-Zuma’s work in government begins to look substantially less rosy than the way it is currently being painted. In this respect, she has certainly benefited from being out of government politics for the past three years, in a country with a short collective memory. Now, Dlamini-Zuma is able to return from the AU as a venerated elder stateswoman. I quote from an article written by REBECCA DAVISof the Daily Maverick... "The AU role has taken her out of local politics, to come back with acquired seniority,” said Butler: a kind of seniority and mystique she might have struggled to attain if she had carried on in ministerial roles. “The one thing that can give her that seniority is pan-Africanism." Many of us would be thrilled if South Africa were to be led by its first female president. But does Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s political history suggest she is the right woman for that job?

    Aug 20, 2017