40. Biography draws out paradoxes about Dlamini-Zuma

Author: Prof Adekeye Adebajo
19 March 2018
Business Day

The ANC presidential crown in 2017 was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s to lose, and she contrived to lose it narrowly to Cyril Ramaphosa. She misread the dramatic changes that had taken place in South Africa’s political landscape since she left for Addis Ababa to chair the African Union (AU) commission in 2012. Though it was, in retrospect, a political misjudgement to have been too close to her ex-husband, Jacob Zuma, Dlamini-Zuma did have a track record in her own right at home and abroad. Justice Malala’s comment that she was “no different from Jacob Zuma, she is Jacob Zuma in a doek,” is thus clearly sexist.

The recent biography of Dlamini-Zuma, Woman in The Wings, by Carien du Plessis is a journalist’s book rather than an academic biography. At 144 pages, it is succinct and readable. It provides some interesting insights into the life and times of the 69-year old Dlamini-Zuma who held three high-profile ministerial appointments between 1994 and 2012, and has now surprisingly returned as a minister in the presidency under Ramaphosa.

Dlamini-Zuma was sometimes her own worst enemy on the hustings for the ANC presidency. She ignored questions on why she had a presidential protection unit as a non-ministerial candidate, creating a sense of entitlement and a lack of accountability. It is, however, important to ask how the ANC can continue to claim a non-sexist tradition when only one of its top six leaders – Jessie Duarte – is a woman?

Dlamini-Zuma’s time as chair of the AU Commission constitutes the core of this book. These sections, however, fail to provide a real sense of her four-year tenure which would require a greater understanding of the AU. The author could have done much better at using broader African sources rather than relying excessively on parochial and sometimes superficial South African sources. Du Plessis, however, draws out well the paradoxes of her subject: a woman with rural roots who led a continental body; a gender activist who married a polygamist; a popular leader with an unsmiling lack of charisma.

The book’s early chapters reveal interesting insights into Nkosazana’s childhood and ideological awakening. She went to the famous mission school, Adams College, in Kwazulu-Natal. Wanting to be a lawyer, she acceded to her father’s choice of studying medicine, first graduating in zoology from the University of Zululand, before pursuing her medical studies at the University of Wentworth. She became vice-president of the South African Students Organisation, before going into exile in Swaziland. Steeped at first in Black Consciousness, she later embraced a more mainstream ANC politics. She married Jacob Zuma (already married to two other women) in 1982. They had four daughters, but divorced in 1998.

Dlamini-Zuma completed her medical studies at England’s Bristol and Liverpool universities, and worked in Swaziland and Zambia, before returning to a liberated South Africa by 1990. As Nelson Mandela’s health minister, the media portrayed her as “Godzuma”: unsmiling, arrogant, and brusque. She, however, delivered free health care for poor pregnant women and children; faced down the tobacco lobby in banning smoking in public places; and fought pharmaceutical companies which were blocking the purchase of cheap ARV drugs. But she also became embroiled in the Sarafina II (when R14 million Rand was allocated to an anti-AIDS play) and Virodene (when she backed an untested toxic industrial solvent as a potential AIDS cure) scandals.

As foreign minister between 1999 and 2009, the book describes an active Dlamini-Zuma, but exaggerates her role – as opposed to Mbeki’s – in mediation efforts in the Congo and Zimbabwe. In her portfolio of home affairs minister between 2009 and 2012, the author praises Dlamini-Zuma’s energy, efficiency, and empathy. In the sections on the AU, du Plessis fails to examine deeply the complex local, regional, and global power politics of an institution that has always been notoriously heads-of-state-driven. She blames Dlamini-Zuma for not being more active in resolving conflicts that were clearly beyond her mandate and capacity to manage. The book, however, captures well, Dlamini-Zuma’s championing of gender issues which was her most consistent priority during her four-year AU tenure. But, the author is too kind to Dlamini-Zuma’s 2013 “Agenda 2063”, praising a quixotic 50-year plan that perfectly symbolised the alchemy at the heart of the AU.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg