Dlamini-Zuma too valuable to lose to the AU
Nkosazna Dlamini-Zuma's failure to unseat the African Union Commission chairman, Gabon's Jean Ping, in an election in Addis Ababa on Monday was not the foreign policy disaster some are calling it.
For a woman to force the contest to an inconclusive fourth round against an incumbent who had not been discredited in any significant way was a formidable achievement - especially on our still male-dominated continent.
Dlamini-Zuma is likely now to get a second chance at the next AU summit in Malawi, and might still win the two-thirds majority of the 54 African states that she needs to secure the position. But should she?
There is something of a curate's egg about our minister of home affairs and the good parts really are very good. But whether she should head the AU Commission depends on whether those are the parts that the job would bring to the fore.
Like all the highly educated ANC exiles who were thrust into government in 1994, she had no executive experience to take to the health ministry job she was given. She had to transform a system built for a white minority to serve the whole nation, and rightly put the first focus on primary healthcare and the next on increased access.
That was a good part of the egg.
But then came Virodene, the quack cure for HIV that she tried to fast-track into the system, and Sarafina II, the over-priced Aids education play that hardly anyone saw, but which she defended for too long.
As South Africa's minister of foreign affairs under Thabo Mbeki's presidency it was hard to identify what she thought separately from whatever often maverick position he was punting at the time.
Staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs said she battled to delegate, leaving crucial decisions unresolved on her desk in Pretoria to the point that the department was crippled in every area except the one that had her attention at the time.
Then, of course, there was her resolute refusal to say anything critical in public about Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, though she admitted to havingdeep reservations in private.
Watching her work over several years, I was surprised to see that she seemed never to take notes, but in a rare late-night interview on the sidelines of an AU summit in Khartoum six years ago, she demonstrated the near total recall that allows her to work without aides whispering in her ear.
Scanning through many of the issues on her agenda on at least four continents, she gave a vivid potted analysis of the state of play in each. But still she seemed not to dare to promote a personal conviction.
More recently, in the home affairs portfolio given to her by her former husband, President Jacob Zuma, she has shown a new side, ordering a chaotic department in a way she apparently never did at foreign affairs.
If she could do that in the giant infrastructure of the AU, the institution that she and Mbeki helped to mould from the former Organisation of African Unity in 2002, perhaps Africa could begin to influence the many conflicts on the continent and to assert itself on the world stage.
But the issue in the Addis vote was less about the personalities and more about the rift, which defines much of continental African politics, between the Francophone west and the rest. Ping, chairman of the AU since 2008, is backed by France, but seen as a puppet of the West by critics.
Dlamini-Zuma challenged him for the job on a platform of African political independence from the economic domination of the European and US governments that vie for control of the continent's resource wealth.
But where would she take the AU if she were to hold the agenda-setting job of its chief executive?
I fear Dlamini-Zuma would adopt Mbeki as her muse and put the continent on an unproductive collision course with the rich and self-interested West.
Africa needs to claim a representative voice in world affairs and a dominant one in African issues. But it needs to pick its battles carefully and fight only those it has a reasonable chance of winning.
She and Mbeki share a long-view approach to global affairs. As in the cases of Zimbabwe, Libya and Ivory Coast, that gradualist style can see many lives sacrificed while Africa tries to implement an African solution to dictatorship.
The chairman of the AU Commission should be accountable for the managerial failures that contribute to the union's ineffectiveness. Dlamini-Zuma could be good in that role. But that person also influences the union's agenda and there I fear we might see the other part of the egg.
If, as people are starting to say, she is the most effective minister in Zuma's cabinet, perhaps we should ask her to stay there.
When she is done with rescuing the Department of Home Affairs, there is always education to fix. If she could do there what she appears to be doing in her current portfolio, we might one day find a rich and growing nation with near full employment erecting statues in her honour.