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African Union

Strong woman heads African Union commission

She is the first woman to head the African Union: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The expectations for her are big - the South African must work hard to avert crises across the continent.

She is considered assertive and disciplined – characteristics Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will be able to make good use of in her new job as president of the African Union (AU). After all, she will head one of the largest regional alliances, made up of 53 African countries, for the next four years. Her list of diplomatic challenges is long – it extends from the crisis in Mali, to violence in the Congo and the failed state of Somalia.

Her journey to the top was not an easy one. After three ballots, she still didn't have the two-thirds majority needed from 34 countries. Only when incumbent Jean Ping from the central Africa country of Gabon withdrew in the fourth round of voting, was Dlamini-Zuma able to get the majority needed in a close election in July.

South Africa's Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, speaks at an informal meeting on International Day of Non-Violence during the 62nd session of the U.N. General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007. (ddp images/AP Photo/Ed Betz).

The AU's new boss is a veteran South African politician

The candidate celebrated the outcome as a victory for women. "This position is not only important for South Africa, but also for women. A woman has never held this position before and we wouldn't have gotten it if we didn't stand for election – until we finally win," she said.

Strong women from the south

 Jean Ping (Photo: Reuters)

Jean Ping, Dlamini-Zuma's rival for the top job at the AU

Dlamini-Zuma is one of the most influential politicians in South Africa, and is a veteran in the fight against racial hatred. Born in 1949, she grew up one of eight children in a village near the costal city of Durban, was raised in the Zulu tradition, the largest ethnic group in South Africa. She studied zoology and botany, became involved early on in the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African anti-Apartheid movement. After the uprisings in 1976, she fled to exile in Britain where she studied medicine and in 1978 she married South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma.

In 1994 Dlamini-Zuma returned to South Africa after the first free and fair elections were held in the country. The country's new president, Nelson Mandela, made her his health minister. After that she was made foreign minister and in 2009 she returned to domestic politics. She was a minister in ex-husband Jacob Zuma's government. The two divorced in 1998. Zuma was one of the first to congratulate her on appointment. "This means a lot for Africa, the continent, the unity and the rights of women," said Zuma.

The new crisis manager

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, at the Executive Ministerial Meeting of the AU. (Photo: dpa)

The AU has been criticized as being ineffectual

The major goal for the mother of five is to make the African Union "more efficient." Time and time again, the alliance has been criticised as a "toothless tiger" that couldn't bring itself to address the crises in Mali, Libya and Sudan. Such remarks were also directed at outgoing Commission President Jean Ping. "Dlamini-Zuma is now expected to strengthen the AU Commission and make their political voices heard," Julia Leininger from the German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn said of the South African's appointment. Dlamini-Zuma must therefore not only improve the workflow and recruit well educated Africans for leadership positions, but also settle simple political differences among member states and promote solutions to the conflicts on the continent. After Sunday's crucial vote, the real challenges begin.

Since 2008, Dlamini-Zuma had been locked in conflict with Jean Ping over the top job. The power struggle had paralyzed the organisation and meant the AU was more preoccupied with itself rather with the continent's pressing problems. The first vote, taken at the AU Summit in January, ended without result, because neither candidate reached the two-thirds majority required for election to the top post. The Alliance was torn along linguistic boundaries and interests.

Long power struggle

Militiaman from the Ansar Dine Islamic group sit on a vehicle in Gao in northeastern Mali, June 18, 2012. The U.N. Security Council on Monday declared its readiness to consider backing West African military intervention in Mali, where rebels and Islamist militants have seized control of much of the country, but said it needed more details on the plan. Picture taken June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Adama Diarra (MALI - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT RELIGION)

The new head is expected to provide solutions to conflicts across the continent

Even with its candidate, South Africa had broken one of the AUs unwritten laws. That law says that economically powerful states should desist from applying for influential institutional positions. Dlamini-Zuma, however, had the support of large parts of English-speaking Africa, and was the preferred candidate of the South African Development Community (SADC). Ping on the other hand was touted as a favorite of Francophone Africa, the smaller, less powerful countries.

For South Africa, the choice of Dlamini-Zuma has given the country added diplomatic weight. The largest African economy is one of the leading emerging markets and is seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

"Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will serve all member states alike, not just a region or country," a spokesperson for the South African government said after her election. But, cracks in the AU are deep and this could serve as a litmus test for the new boss. "Dlamini-Zuma is very experienced in domestic issues, very assertive, but she has very little experience on a diplomatic level, so we will have to see whether the confrontation before the election will continue during her time in office," says Leiniger from the German Development Insitute.

In addition to the rifts within the organization, the new AU chief will also have to find the answers to the crises on the continent, including the armed conflict in Mali and the disputes between Sudan and South Sudan. She doesn't have a lot of time to sort them out.

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