After four years in the global spotlight,Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s term as chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission ends in July. The high- profile position began on a historic note, with Dlamini-Zuma being the first woman to lead the executive branch of the organization, including its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
As the curtain comes down on the Pan-African incumbency of one of Africa’s leading female political leaders, Dlamini-Zuma’s stint at the apex of the continental body has been another feather in the cap of an illustrious professional and political career.
She came to office after defeating former AU Commission chairperson and Gabonese politician Jean Ping in July 2012. Her triumph was, however, not entirely surprising. Dlamini-Zuma came highly recommended as a mover and shaker in her native South Africa.
The 67-year-old leader’s journey to the top was shaped by the South African apartheid system. Serving as the deputy president of the student league of the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1970s, she fled to exile in the UK, attaining a medical degree at the University of Bristol in 1978. Throughout Dlamini-Zuma’s years in exile, both in the UK and in neighboring Swaziland and Zambia, she contributed to and held senior positions in the ANC-in-exile. It is no wonder that she was appointed minister of health in the African-majority government under former President Nelson Mandela in 1994, rising to the position of foreign minister in 1999 under Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki. In retrospect her South African foreign minister tenure, lasting 10 years to 2009, equipped her for the highly geopolitical AU Commission chairperson position. Under former husband, President Jacob Zuma, she was redeployed to the equally senior position of minister of home affairs from 2009 to 2012, from whence she headed for Addis Ababa after a concerted South African lobbying of other African countries against then incumbent Jean Ping.
At a time when the AU was battling with funding, it needed a steady hand on the tiller by a politically smart, bureaucracy-savvy and courageous leader, traits Dlamini-Zuma displayed in many of her successes during her tenure.
She now leaves the organization after a single term, when she would have easily clinched a second. As a heavyweight within South Africa’s ruling ANC party, speculation is rife that she will seek higher office back home. It will be left to the party’s election of a new leader in 2017 to see if she could push for the presidential candidate nomination in the 2019 general elections, when the second term of Jacob Zuma expires.