Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, The African 'Iron Lady'

Article published on June 22, 2014
Article published on June 22, 2014

Press con­fer­ences that fol­low big sum­mits have us ac­cus­tomed to promises about big pacts and enor­mous num­bers for eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion. That's why it comes as a shock to find a woman like Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the chair­per­son of the African Union (AU) Com­mis­sion, that is down to earth and refers to peo­ple as in­di­vid­u­als.

At the press con­fer­ence of the lat­est sum­mit be­tween the Eu­ro­pean Union and Africa, Dlamini Zuma didn't de­tail the agree­ments that were pre­vi­ously analysed by Bar­roso, Van Rompuy and Mo­hamed Ould Abdel Aziz, pres­i­dents of the Com­mis­sion, the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil and the African Union  (AU) re­spec­tively. Amongst so many lead­ers and pres­i­dents, Dlamini Zuma's spon­tane­ity and hu­man­ity were em­pha­sised. She spoke to the press with­out a printed speech.

In her speech she ex­plained how young African stu­dents with train­ing are wel­come in Eu­rope, while those with­out marks die at sea or in the desert: “If we focus our ef­forts on our young peo­ple's train­ing, we wouldn't live to see any more cases like Lampe­dusa. They would only enter Eu­rope via air­ports”. Dlamini Zuma em­pha­sises the com­par­a­tive ad­van­tages be­tween Eu­rope and Africa, the lat­ter being a con­ti­nent with vast tracts of arable land, large, un­ex­plored fish­ing areas, a pop­u­la­tion pyra­mid of rapid growth and a major tourist at­trac­tion.

Through her words, a con­ti­nent with suf­fer­ing and dif­fi­cul­ties was seen, yes, but also a con­ti­nent with tremen­dous po­ten­tial if we act as one to achieve paci­fi­ca­tion and de­moc­ra­ti­sa­tion in all coun­tries. Her un­hur­ried, pen­sive speech ended with the idea that “this is the time to re­ally im­ple­ment what we've touched upon and thus be­come two great con­ti­nents”.

A Fe­male Politi­cian Shaped by Ac­tivism

Born in South Africa in 1949, dur­ing her stu­dent years she got in­volved in the ANC (African Na­tional Con­gress) in order to fight against the apartheid sys­tem. In 1970 she took up exile in Eng­land where she fin­ished her de­gree in Med­i­cine and con­tin­ued with her ac­tivism, or­ga­niz­ing the anti-apartheid move­ment abroad.

In 1990, when the ANC was le­gal­ized, she re­turned to South Africa and fol­low­ing Nel­son Man­dela win­ning the first de­mo­c­ra­tic elec­tions, she be­came Health Min­is­ter. In this po­si­tion, Dlamini-Zuma re­formed the seg­re­gated model of pub­lic health and made ac­cess to basic health care eas­ier for the poor­est com­mu­ni­ties. Af­ter­wards, she spent 10 years as For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter, where she was praised for her man­age­ment in end­ing the war in the De­mo­c­ra­tic Re­pub­lic of the Congo. In 2009, she jumped to the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs, where she stream­lined the cum­ber­some and slow the state bu­reau­cracy and sorted out the de­part­ment's mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tions, hav­ing suc­ceeded in ob­tain­ing noth­ing less than the first trans­par­ent audit in 16 years. In 2012, she left the Min­istry of Home Af­fairs in order to be­come the first woman to lead the African Union (AU). Her elec­tion broke away from an un­writ­ten rule: the biggest coun­tries on the con­ti­nent mustn't sit in as chair of the agency for fear of the AU ex­ploit­ing the smaller coun­tries. How­ever, the African Iron Lady, as some call her, has al­ready made it clear that she at­tends it's meet­ings as Dlamini Zuma, and not on be­half of her coun­try. She de­scribes her­self as a “vi­sion­ary leader with un­be­liev­able pas­sion for the African con­ti­nent”, which she wants to ex­em­plify from the African Union “be­com­ing es­tab­lished as a top-notch Pan-African in­sti­tu­tion”.