28th AU Summit: Promoting women’s rights the highlight of Dlamini Zuma’s legacy


On Tuesday 31 January, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), will sit on the podium facing African heads of state attending the bi-annual AU Summit in Addis Ababa for the last time.

After four-and-a-half years at the helm of the organisation, Dlamini Zuma is stepping down. If all goes well and heads of state reach a consensus, her successor will be elected at the 28th Summit, which starts this week with preliminary meetings.

Dlamini Zuma returns to complicated politics back home in South Africa – though some say she never really left – where she is considered one of the frontrunners to replace President Jacob Zuma as head of the African National Congress and eventually the country. Her legacy and competencies have become the subject of much debate. Will her time spent in the prestigious AU position stand her in good stead in the succession race?

Dlamini Zuma vowed to turn the AU around and promote a ‘people-centred’ organisation

For millions of Africans, the AU is a distant organisation that holds meetings and drafts documents in Addis Ababa, but with little or no effect on the ground. Dlamini Zuma’s task at the AU was to show that the organisation really matters. Following her election in 2012, she vowed to turn the AU around and promote a ‘people-centred’ organisation that would make a difference to ordinary Africans. Not an easy task altogether.

A cornerstone of Dlamini Zuma’s plan was the launch of Agenda 2063 – her blueprint for a ‘peaceful and prosperous Africa’. While there was limited communication on anything else she did during her term, Agenda 2063 was popularised through massive campaigns and road shows. Pretty much every AU official has a T-shirt or a hat with ‘Agenda 2063’ branding. But for now, this remains a blueprint and is largely a political project. It will be up to member states and her successors to implement it.

During her term, the former South African minister made enemies on many fronts at the AU. Her near-absence from several burning issues, such as ensuring free and fair elections and mediating in peace talks, has certainly tarnished her legacy at the AU. Dlamini Zuma was seldom seen on the spot when crises erupted, and rare was the interview in which she’d take a strong stand on current affairs in Africa. In fact, she gave very few media interviews on any issue.

She was also strongly criticised for not spending enough time at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. The decision to deliver a ‘State of the Continent’ address in Durban, South Africa, rather than in Addis Ababa at the end of 2016, is indicative of this.

A cornerstone of Dlamini Zuma’s plan was the launch of Agenda 2063

Meanwhile, Dlamini Zuma’s decision not to run for another term at the AU gives rise to questions about her commitment. Four years is not a long time, and much of her term was spent elaborating the ambitious Agenda 2063, – a project that also has its detractors. Some say a 50-year plan is too far into the future and that long-term socio-economic development shouldn’t be prioritised over more immediate issues. And much work remains in uniting the various linguistic and regional blocs within the AU, which are still often at loggerheads.

However, many positive developments also happened at the AU during Dlamini Zuma’s tenure. Her spokesperson Jacob Enoh Eben told ISS Today that decisions around self-financing of the AU; continental integration, with the launch of an e-passport for Africans; and kickstarting important reforms are an integral part of her legacy. She also ‘increased the visibility and reputation of the AU as a continental and global player,’ he says.

Clearly, on some of these issues, Dlamini Zuma did play an important role, but in many instances, it wasn’t hers alone. For example, she prioritised the self-financing of the AU – an organisation that is still heavily reliant on outside donors, like the European Union. She emphasised this on numerous occasions, and strongly supported the plan – which was adopted by heads of state at the 27th Summit in Kigali last year – to finance the AU through a 2% levy on imports.

Yet this might have happened regardless of her support. The AU has long realised the importance of ensuring its autonomy, especially given the pressure of dwindling aid funding.

Her decision not to run for another term at the AU leads to questions over Dlamini Zuma’s commitment

Before Dlamini Zuma took up office in October 2012, expectations were high that she would be able to bring much-needed reform to the AU as an institution – much like she did in her portfolio of home affairs in South Africa. It was hoped she could turn the organisation around and make it far more effective.

Certainly, reforms such as video conferencing; more thorough financial audits; and curbing unnecessary travel by AU staff were put in place. Her tenure also saw the launch of an AU Leadership Academy to train staff.

Drawn up by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and a team of experts, a new plan to reform the AU Commission is also on the table and will be discussed at the upcoming 28th AU Summit. However, the Commission still suffers from huge problems such as a lack of young professionals (the majority of AU employees are civil servants and the average age is 50), and a lack of capacity to carry out funded programmes.

Where Dlamini Zuma has really made a difference and did show some impact, however, was her commitment to promoting women’s rights in Africa. Even though some would argue that this is a ‘soft issue’ and perhaps not the core mandate of the AU, it is a worthy and urgent cause given the dire situation faced by many women in Africa.

For two years in a row, the AU theme, discussed at its bi-annual summits, focused on women. This didn’t please everyone. ‘We will definitely not have another woman chairperson at the AU – she clashed with too many people,’ one North African diplomat in South Africa recently quipped during a discussion about the succession race for the AU’s top job.

Dlamini Zuma’s tenure saw the launch of an AU Leadership Academy to train staff

But Dlamini Zuma continued with her campaigns regardless. The most visible of these initiatives has been the drive to include more women in political participation in Africa, to try and highlight the plight of women in war situations by appointing a special envoy for women, peace and security, and the campaign to stem child marriage. The latter might be the one campaign that succeeds in making a dramatic difference to the lives of millions of girls, even in the short term.

According to statistics released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there are up to 125 million girls in Africa under the age of 18 who are already married – some before the age of 15. In some countries, like Mozambique and Zambia, the number of girls below 18 who are already married is close to 50%.

This has a devastating effect on the lives of adolescent girls. They are forced to leave school, suffer health problems due to bearing children at such a young age, and are often helpless against abuse from their much older husbands.

During her tenure, Dlamini Zuma attempted to persuade governments to enforce legislation and international agreements on combating child marriage. She targeted heads of state and criss-crossed the continent to discuss the topic with them. In November 2015, the AU also organised the first summit in Zambia on this issue.

Still – has the campaign made any real difference? Or is it just all talk and no action?

So far, the number of young girls getting married is slowly dropping, thanks to campaigns like that of the AU, but also global campaigns by the likes of UNICEF. The decrease in the number of child marriages is mostly in urban areas and among the more affluent.

The campaign is also slowly filtering through to local level in individual countries, and will hopefully see traditional leaders and cultural groups moving away from this practice. At the end of last year, both Nigeria and Liberia had joined the AU campaign, which has now reached 18 African countries.

If these figures drop even further and more girls go to school instead of being forced into marriage, it will be, in part, thanks to these campaigns. Dlamini Zuma’s tenacity seems to have paid off on at least one score.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

Picture: ©Jacqueline Cochrane/ISS

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