Pretoria -- The ANC Women's League convened at the Pretoria City Hall on Sunday to listen to the newly elected African Union Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, clarify the workings of the African Union and her new role within it. It turned out to be quite a celebration.
The floorboards at the City Hall squealed noisily under the strain of the dancing comrades, and the deference paid to Dlamini-Zuma in song, dance and spoken word was indicative of just how much Dlamini-Zuma's election has meant to the ANC-led government - especially given that there has not been much else to celebrate lately.
Sunday's Women's League event was, however, also a timely reminder of Dlamini-Zuma's own popularity within the ANC. Even if her deployment to the AU was not an astute move by President Zuma to cut out any more competition in Manguang, having Dlamini-Zuma shipped off to Addis Ababa certainly does not harm Zuma's campaign for a second term. She is not just a popular figure in the ANC, she is also a capable figure. Unlike the venerable president, Dlamini-Zuma has a proven track record of actually getting things done. It is, then, rather convenient for Zuma to put a few thousand miles between himself and his old missus.
But apart from how Dlamini-Zuma's AU election success may affect the skulduggery of the ANC leadership battle, it is clear that her new position is something with which the ANC is still grappling. Deputy Minister of Economic Development, Hlengiwe Mkhize, said the Women's League had decided to host the event in order to hear from Dlamini-Zuma herself what her election to the African Union signified. "We wanted to hear from her instead of reading about it in the media," Mkhize said.
Nonetheless, it was Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who looked like the cat that got the cream. And it's not difficult to work out why she is so pleased. Dlamini-Zuma's ascension to the chair of the African Union Commission feeds into South Africa's ambitions for permanent representation at the United Nations.
Dlamini-Zuma, however, is not set to be Mashabane's "number two" at the African Union - in fact, she's not expected to be number two anywhere, if her reputation as a powerful personality is anything to go by. As Fatima Nahara, an NEC member of the Women's League, said in her introduction of Dlamini-Zuma, "With Nkosazana, you know no means no."
Dlamini-Zuma herself later cautioned the Women's League delegates, "When I go [and] work, I'll be working as a servant of Africans, and not South Africa. As South Africa, we have to locate ourselves in that pan-Africanism, and not just narrow self-interest."
Dlamini-Zuma made clear that she would be guided by a vision to wrest the thrust of African politics from the interests of the West, and ensure instead that Africans themselves determined their own reactions to the continent's challenges. She spent much of her hour-long speech reflecting on how exactly Africa became the basket case of the world.
"We have a proud history, a proud heritage, but what went wrong?" she asked.
It became clear, following this rhetorical question, that she believed a greater degree of agency would be the key to developing the African continent in the long term. "What went wrong is when people from the west began taking African people as slaves," she said. "It started with slavery; the healthiest and fittest were taken away for the benefit of the imperialist countries. Those who did that thought we were sub-human And following [that] was colonialism, [where] Europeans carve[d] up Africa the way we see it today and distributed it amongst themselves as if we were just flora and fauna.
"Their aim was to exploit the continent and its people for their own enrichment."
The underlying theory, then, is that Dlamini-Zuma will fight to counteract this history of ownership and the resultant poverty and instability. On a practical level, however, there was little indication of how she would drive this through her leadership of the AU Commission.
In short, beyond the rousing rhetoric, she failed to comment on any trenchant matters of African politics. She spoke passionately of the position of women in various pre-colonial African societies, noting that the Malian city of Timbuktu was named after a woman, but failed to note that the very same city had in the last month borne the onslaught of marauding rebel forces battling for the newly declared state of Azzawad in northern Mali.
Yet it would have been a pertinent starting point. Dlamini-Zuma's steering of the inevitable intervention in northern Mali will be one of her first tests in her new position. Although the West African body regional body Ecowas has been at the forefront of the crisis in Mali, negotiating with the rebels and applying to the United Nations Security Council for help, France has also displayed its readiness to lend a hand in beating back the rebels. Balancing the apparent generosity of France against the drive to solve African problems with home-grown solutions will severely test Dlamini-Zuma's philosophy of asserting African agency against the hegemony of the former colonial powers and the US.
But South Africa has installed her in this position to ensure that the direction of the African Union Commission is handled ably enough to assist the stances it takes in the United Nations Security Council.
Conflict in Libya and Ivory Coast have left bitter after-tastes on South African palates, and much of the energy expended by Dirco recently has sought to avert a repeat of Libya and the Ivory Coast. At the helm of the Security Council last January, South Africa sponsored a resolution that ensured the Security Council worked more closely with regional bodies - particularly the African Union. All this then, is aimed at ensuring the West is no longer perceived to influence the prickly points of African politics.
She noted, however, that the African Union couldn't subsist in itself.
"We are not an island; we are a continent. We have to deal with other countries," she said. "The AU, besides working with member states, is also working with the world.
"We [have branches like] the AU-China forum, where we see how we can work with China for mutual benefit. There is also an AU-India forum."
These forums will form a critical test of her ability to maintain greater autonomy on the African continent. In her address, she acknowledged that the relationship between the African Union, China and India - contemporary colonial powers, as some tout them - was skewed and, reflecting on funding of the African Union sourced from these countries, she said, "This is fine for now, but I hope in time we will have an equal relationship."
Dlamini-Zuma is certainly aware of one of the greatest obstacles to exercising her philosophy in her new role. She will battle to win the loyalty of dissidents to South Africa's relentless drive for the leadership of the AU Commission, but appears confident that she will succeed.
"Right through the history of the Union we have emphasised unity, and now it's also important," she said. "With political will, we can do it."