No more ‘Africa time’ in Addis
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has her work cut out for her at the helm of the AU Commission
The cracks are starting to show in the shiny Addis Ababa headquarters of the African Union – a gift from the Chinese government.
The red carpet on the marble staircase is looking worn, the buttons for the lifts get stuck and the T of the toilet sign on the ground floor is missing.
A local entrepreneur is using the space meant for a post office to sell sandwiches to starving delegates.
This is where former home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma took up office in October last year as the new chairperson of the African Union Commission, the first South African to hold this position.
This glittering achievement fades in the light of the realities at the AU itself – small budgets, bloated staff and crippling office politics.
Her first test was to be the annual January summit, where the heads of state gather in Multipurpose Hall, the unimaginative name for the central plenary chamber.
It was a visibly uncomfortable Dlamini-Zuma who stood in front of them to deliver her first address.
Dressed in a crisp white kaftan with matching turban she looked like a modern-day messiah and she talks the talk: implementation is key, partnerships need reviewing and Africa should get its military act together.
But throughout her address her eyes were glued to her speech and even the bouquet that Benin President Boni Yayi handed her did little to put her at ease.
Her discomfort comes as no surprise.
The battle for her to get her current position was a dirty one, and many enemies were made.
But even they would not have wished upon Dlamini-Zuma the chaos she found at the AU headquarters.
Coups in Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Central African Republic were on her immediate to-do list and crisis management was needed.
Equally urgent was the need to repair the fractured relations left by her election race.
International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane insisted her fellow comrade’s first three months in office went well.
“She’s been well received and welcomed by everyone who’s been here for many years. She is also economical with time and wants to make sure things get done.”
Things did start off well – Dlamini-Zuma got the freedom of the city in Addis Ababa and former enemies, like Rwanda and Kenya, came to say they’re sorry.
Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the perception that South Africa wanted to “take over” Africa by putting Dlamini-Zuma in charge of the AU Commission have now been changed.
“People realise with her being here the complete picture we wanted to sell had nothing to do with power, but to get the continent running better.”
Already things at the AU have started to change.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said she can “feel the difference” during the summit.
“She seems to me like a serious person and she’s practical. There is an air of positive change and we need to be supportive of that.
“We need to start doing business like a modern union,” she said.
Rwanda did not vote for Dlamini-Zuma, Mushikiwabo said, because it doesn’t support the notion of big countries taking up important positions in the AU.
“But we’ve worked with her when she was foreign minister and she’s efficient. Now at the summit one can see that – the punctuality is easy to notice.”
A Cameroonian diplomat also noted that AU summits “never ended this early”.
He said the AU needed someone who would implement decisions.
“She’s very good. We need someone who can take decisions and she seems to be the one for the job.”
But within the AU Commission, which serves as the engine room of the continental body, there are some reservations about whether Dlamini-Zuma will be able to make a real difference in the way the organisation is run.
Key portfolios like finance and administration are in the hands of the deputy AU Commission chairperson, Erastus Mwencha from Kenya, another country that initially did not support Dlamini-Zuma’s bid for the chairpersonship.
AU veterans say this can drastically impact Dlamini-Zuma’s capacity to change the AU into an effective and world-class organisation.
“The AU Act has a fundamental flaw that the members of the bureau (the de facto cabinet) are elected as equals,” one senior AU commission staffer said.
This means Dlamini-Zuma cannot move as fast as she would like to, and has to ask for money from her deputy.
Commission staff looked forward to having Dlamini-Zuma in charge but she has so far only met them once. She tends to surround herself with gatekeepers.
“She must not have her own club, that’s what her predecessor (Jean Ping) did and it isolated him,” the staffer said.
So far Dlamini-Zuma appointed former South African ambassadors Baso Sangqu and Febe Potgieter to join her in Addis.
The team is not complete yet, said Nkoana-Mashabane, who has to supplement the payments of these staff members because AU salaries are much lower than at home.
The fear of a “South African takeover” still exists among staff members.
“The danger is that she will think she’s still in South Africa,” the staffer said.
Addis-based diplomats sympathetic to Dlamini-Zuma said she would have had more success continuing as home affairs minister in South Africa because in her current position “there’s very little that can trickle down to the lives of people”.
Said one: “To expect of her to change things is like expecting Obama to change the US. We all want it but we know it’s a bit of a pipe dream.”