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Report: African Union summit

Freedom fighter Dlamini-Zuma takes the helm of African Union

Reuters/Tiksa Negeri
Text by: Laura Angela Bagnetto in Addis Ababa
3 min

The African Union ushered in a new era on Sunday, as South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, became the first woman to be elected to the top spot of the regional body.


“I think I’m fine. I'm just very grateful to all the member states for having entrusted me with this responsibility of their organization,” said Dlamini-Zuma, as she entered the African Union conference centre for the first time on Monday as the chairperson-elect of the AU Commission.

Dlamini-Zuma said that she has been at the African Union since its inception, in her capacity as South Africa’s foreign minister for 10 years, adding that she is well-versed on Pan-African matters.

One of the most telling comments about Dlamini-Zuma came after Sunday’s secret ballot by African heads of state.

“She is a freedom fighter,” said Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, referring to her role during the apartheid years as a staunch African National Congress member. “She’s not a diplomat or a bureaucrat.”

South African President Jacob Zuma, who is Dlamini-Zuma’s ex-husband, said her election to the chair was “empowerment for women.”

AU Social Affairs Commissioner Bience Gawanas said that Dlamini-Zuma is “not just any woman. She is a woman who has shown a commitment to… issues of health." He added that her 10-year track record as South Africa’s Foreign Minister shows that her work is not only limited to women’s issues.

The commission president-elect will have a full portfolio of crises to deal with when she officially takes the seat in September for a four-year term. The political and security crisis in Mali, rebel attacks in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the border disputes between South Sudan and Sudan topped the agenda at this year's AU Summit.

There are worries that South Africa will try to dominate African politics with Zuma at the helm, which it has been accused of before. Kenya’s Foreign Minister Michael Onyonka told the AFP news agency that he was ill at ease with South Africa's methods and style.

Dlamini-Zuma has a reputation for her steely personality, a glimpse of which emerged during a press conference before the vote.

"South Africa is not going to come to Addis Ababa to run the AU," she said. "It is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who is going to come to make a contribution," she added, in reference to the unpublished rule at the AU that smaller countries with less of a voice on a regional or global level be candidates for the seat.

One francophone minister who asked not to be identified said that this election broke all the taboos and unwritten rules on which the African Union is based. He considered the whole process “revolutionary.”

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