By Imraan Buccus
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma cut an impressive figure at the launch of a book that captures images of her five-year tenure as head of the African Union Commission. She filled the room the moment she walked in. This is a woman who is ready for business. She put paid to the customary windy introduction of the political principal by an affable aide and strode straight to the podium folder in hand. Impressions are everything when you’re jostling for the political spotlight.
It may sound vacuous but every step of those who seek political office is watched for signals and symbolism. Dlamini-Zuma chose a doek in the bright green of the African Union and a tailored kente business jacket in a more muted. She does not have the commanding height of Theresa May who insists on being lifted by a cupboard full of heels nor does she have the professorial air of Eileen Johnson-Sirleaf but she is able to strike a resonance on the ground.
The doek connects her to local women who will make up more than 50% of the electorate were she to lead the African National Congress into the 2019 general election. Her special greetings for the local women leaders in provincial and local government should not have gone unnoticed either. In politics you build alliances. Regrettably, those alliances are fluid the world over but one invests in them nonetheless.
The handpicked audience of discernible influence reserved rapt attention for her short address. The folder of notes signalled that she was taking no-one for granted with off the cuff remarks. She had come prepared. Those notes gave a valuable insight into her thinking on continental matters from youth empowerment to Ebola to the environment to mineral beneficiation and silencing the guns. Every so often she departed from the notes to show the grasp she had on matters that are clearly close to her heart.
As eloquent as she was, one could hardly help thinking that she was making a speech better suited to the African Union office she was departing rather than the Union Buildings her backers were training their eyes on. Her record at the AU is not universally acclaimed but that goes with the territory. She is accused of not giving greater prominence to resolving military conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance. Another charge is that she spent more time shuttling to South Africa on ANC matters than she did on AU business.
One view holds that she should have been far more activist about taking Africa’s case to the councils of the world and getting traction there on matters related to trade and investment. On the plus side she is credited with giving higher prominence to women’s issues on the continent, campaigning against child brides and seeking to make the African Union less dependent on foreign donor aid. Dlamini-Zuma will not be short on local praise singers. It is human nature to be proud of one’s own and indeed she has done South Africa proud by being elected to head one of the highest offices on our continent. For one faction in the ANC, she is something of a God-send reminiscent of Juke’s relief in Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, “Jukes was uncritically glad to have his captain at hand. It relieved him as though that man had, by simply coming on deck,
taken most of the gale’s weight upon his shoulders. Such is the prestige, the privilege, and the burden of command.” Dlamini-Zuma has an enormous weight thrust upon her shoulders. This is not the ANC’s finest moment. No matter how much one rants and raves about the opposition, fake news or straw men this century-old liberation movement is taking a hammering from both inside and out. Those who deny the malaise afflicting the organisation are doing it a greater harm than those who attack it.
One hopes that Dlamini-Zuma will temper her campaign in the months ahead and not fall prey to the murky antics of some of the greasy coteries jostling to get her elected. Her campaign will be best pitched on the strength of her person and her track record. Her erstwhile spouse is baggage and the more distance she puts from him the greater will be her appeal not just among the branch delegates that will vote in the ANC’s upcoming elective conference but also among the general populace who will have no hand in the ANC selecting its leadership. Whatever its shortcomings, we must take comfort from the fact that the ANC is located within strong constitutional traditions and that its elections are conducted according to defined and defensible processes. Those with greasy palms will consistently seek to buy branches and influence delegates. One need look no further than Joseph Comey’s testimony before the US Senate on the extent of meddling by both a sitting US president and a foreign government to assess how much is at stake in elections everywhere.
The best defence against the corrupt are those who stand to be counted for principle, honesty and integrity. It will serve Dlamini-Zuma well if she were to come out unequivocally against the crooks. This is the woman who went to war against smokers and won. She can surely stand toe to toe with the most formidable in the ANC.
Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside