JOHANNESBURG (AP) – The continent-wide African Union elected a female politician from South Africa for the first time as head of its commission, officials said Monday.
South African Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was voted in late Sunday to lead the African Union’s permanent commission of leaders, administrators and technical experts.
Dlamini-Zuma successfully challenged the incumbent, Jean Ping of Gabon, who held the post since 2008. Ping had the backing of French-speaking African nations, while Dlamini-Zuma had the backing of English-speaking nations. The 63-year-old is the first female to hold the leadership position and the first South African.
Dlamini-Zuma, who is also the former wife of South African President Jacob Zuma, secured the votes of 37 of the 54 African Union member nations to narrowly win the two-thirds majority required at a summit of leaders in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
Her election was seen as a major coup for South Africa as it tries to emerge as a political and economic powerhouse on the continent.
The Women’s League of South Africa’s governing African National Congress party said it was “beaming with pride” over one of its members election and described it as a victory for women across Africa, for long the victims of poverty, prejudice and oppression.
“Her deep understanding of the dynamics of Africa will inspire unity and stability across the continent,” the group said.
The main ANC party said Monday that Dlamini-Zuma, a seasoned diplomat and politician, would be a loss to the nation’s government but now had answered “a higher calling” to serve the entire continent. The commission’s main mission to drive African integration and development would be better served under her able leadership, party leaders said in a statement.
South Africa’s International Affairs and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Dlamini-Zuma held strong beliefs in strengthening democracy, the rule of law and unity among African states.
“There will be more accountability, there will be more fast-tracking of decisions taken by the heads of state,” Nkoana-Mashabane said.
That meant spending more time taking action on decisions instead of just making more wordy resolutions, she told the South African Broadcasting Corp.
The independent South African Medical Association noted that Dlamini Zuma, a medical doctor, pursued excellence in all the duties she undertook. As well as being a champion of peace and democracy, it said she fought hunger and poverty and was ready to address continent-wide health issues such as high levels of maternal and child mortality.
South African Foreign Ministry official Clayson Monyela hailed the summit vote as a triumph for diplomacy that put an end to the long wrangle between member states over the post.
At the last summit in January, there was no outright winner in the vote and Ping stayed on until the latest Addis Ababa meeting. African Union chairman President Boni Yayi of Benin said Sunday that the last inconclusive vote had painted the continental organization in a poor light. He acknowledged it hurt the image of the body as a peacemaker and mediator in a range of wars, military take-overs and other disputes across the continent.
Dlamini-Zuma, in a transcript of a media interview released by her office on Saturday, conceded there were divisions over the commission chair and South Africa’s role in campaigning for it, but described herself as a citizen of Africa who wanted to make a `’humble contribution” to the continent.
Asked what she would bring to the AU Commission she referred to her medical background.
`’Like a doctor, you first diagnose and then you treat. I will have to take it from there,” she said.
The AU heads of state and government two-day assembly closes later Monday.
Associated Press reporter Kirubel Tadesse in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.