The Big Read: A tangled web she weaves
For the beleaguered ANC the rise of a high-calibre woman leader should lead to rejuvenation of the body politic. But sadly, for the woman touted to be the next party president after Jacob Zuma ends his second term, there are questions and lots of red flags.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is an ambiguous, ambitious figure, an operator and bureaucrat. The 68-year-old comes with exile-struggle credentials, extensive experience at top government level in health, foreign affairs and home affairs, and Africa-continental engagements that helped elevate her to head the African Union Commission.
It is difficult to evaluate her organisational leadership of the ANC as she has never held a high-level party position. Her ascent comes through public deployment. Here she has gained solid credentials across her portfolios.
Yet blotches and question marks bedeck this new and gender-correct page that some in the ANC hope to turn. The ANC faction aligned to the president, her former husband, is her dedicated backer.
Leadership is effective if it meets the needs of the time. Yet a core doubt about her candidacy is that it promises more of the same ANC and government culture that has bedevilled the party recently.
Dlamini-Zuma appears an unlikely candidate to bring a break with the past, and with it a reconnection of the ANC to its founding ideals and optimism.
The two words used regularly to describe her - "incommunicative" and "not-people-friendly" - hardly elicit images to fit the bill.
Digging deeper into the Dlamini-Zuma enigma, there is scant evidence of inspirational leadership, of qualities that will help restore respect for the presidency of South Africa.
She hardly leads from the front. Instead, she has fronted for big men (presidents Thabo Mbeki and Zuma in particular) to serve their ideological and reputational needs.
Hence the question that demands cold-blooded assessment: is Dlamini-Zuma too embedded to fit the ANC bill? Are the similarities between her and the other Zuma just too tangible? Traits such as stubbornness, arrogance, and the sense of knowing best what the ANC needs, come to mind.
Dlamini-Zuma's cabinet-level office holdings over the years reveal much about her blend of strategy and policy substance.
She held the prime position of minister of foreign affairs for a decade (1999-2009), under presidents Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe. Mbeki's African Renaissance and African Peer Review Mechanism offered her platforms to operate across Africa.
She embraced these, while never upstaging her boss. She did not oppose Mbeki, for example, when his quiet diplomacy ruled the roost in relations with Zimbabwe. Together they turned a blind eye to torture, vote-rigging and human rights abuses in the name of continental brotherhood.
As minister of home affairs in the Zuma regime (2009-2012) Dlamini-Zuma was part of an auditing turnaround and improved efficiency. A succession of consultants and senior departmental bureaucrats leveraged the improvements. She took the bow, but did help improve departmental efficiency.
There appeared to be no scandals until it emerged in 2015 that she, a member of the local organising committee, had ordered the payment of the $10-million Fifa bribe, disguised as a football development contribution, for Caribbean football boss Jack Warner and two others.
Dlamini-Zuma's stint as minister of health (1994-1999) facilitated important transitions into the democratic political order. A post-apartheid order started emerging and new policies were introduced.
She brought anti-smoking legislation and took on the big pharmaceutical industry. The other Dlamini-Zuma, however, was in full flight. She helped open the sluice gates of state corruption when she commissioned the extravagantly funded anti-Aids play Sarafina II.
The AU Commission chair was supposed to be a crowning glory, but she never overcame the ignominy and controversy of her election, and became synonymous with continental divisions, replete with suspicions of South Africa as the continental power that turned into a neo-colonialist force.
When it came to big continental conflicts Dlamini-Zuma's AU was likely to be silent. One of the big criticisms against her was that she always had one foot back in South Africa, awaiting the signal to enter the succession race and capture the presidential trophy.
The ANC needs to stop - decisively and decidedly - the culture of state looting by opaque, subterfuge actions and by open government contract. It needs to find ways to direct black economic empowerment into consistently credible, clean tracks. It needs to embrace every project to show that the ANC is on the straight and narrow, including lifestyle audits of its leadership. It needs to show through actions rather than smart words that leaders are there to serve the citizens of the country.
But Dlamini-Zuma is probably not the person who can deliver on this. Well-placed sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say Dlamini-Zuma's presidential plan is to sharpen up service delivery - arguing that even if you got this contract in corrupt ways, let's move on and get you to deliver; get those roads, bridges, houses, water pipes, to work!
This would be the sound of rain on the roof for Dlamini-Zuma's scandal-hopping and court-avoiding ex-husband - as well as for an expansive echelon of exploitative and corrupt tenderpreneurs and money launderers in, or associated with, the public sector in South Africa.
Such an approach might well secure Dlamini-Zuma the top job should her campaigners retain unity and momentum. Business as usual: but the ANC's need for a reinvigorated organisation is likely to go up in smoke.
Booysen is a professor in the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand.
This piece was first published in The Conversation.