In January 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first woman to become African president (Liberia). The name Ngozi Nweala-Okonjo, the renowned Nigerian economist, garners respect among both men and women. And not too long ago, Joyce Banda made news when she became the second African woman to be elected president of an African nation (Malawi). Add to that mix the recent election of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as the first woman elected to lead the African Union Commission, and it is safe to say that African women are on their way to the top.
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma began her journey to the chairmanship of the African Union Commission (previously the Organization of African States) in the 1970s as a young activist seeking change in what she recognized as an unjust and corrupt world. As a student, Dlamini-Zuma was an active underground member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a member of the South African Students Organization (SASO), of which she served as deputy president in 1976.
During the same year, 1976, Dlamini Zuma fled into exile due to the increasing violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party. Two years prior to her exile, in 1974, nine leaders of the SASO had been arrested and tried for conspiring to overthrow the state by unconstitutional means. They became known as the “SASO Nine.” They were all convicted and sentenced to terms ranging between 5 and 10 years on Robben Island, after a seventeen month trial.
Two years later, in 1978, Dlamini Zuma graduated from the University of Bristol medical school and soon became a practicing medical doctor. She worked for a few years at the Mbabane Government Hospital in Swaziland. It was here that she met and courted her now ex-husband, the sitting president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. In 1982, she and Jacob Zuma were married and gave birth to four children. She later divorced him in 1998. She was his third wife, a position that is baffling given her level of self-accomplishments.
In 1985, Dlamini Zuma returned to the United Kingdom to complete a diploma in tropical child health from Liverpool University’s School of Tropical Medicine. She then returned to South Africa and worked for the ANC Regional Health Committee before becoming the director of the Health and Refugee Trust, a British non-governmental organization.
In 1992, she served as part of the Gender Advisory Committee for the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. She was appointed by then President Nelson Mandela as Minister of Health in 1994, a position she held for the next five years.
In 1999, after Thabo Mbeki became the next president of South Africa, Dlamini Zuma was appointed as the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. On 22 September 2008, Dlamini-Zuma resigned as the Foreign Minister after Thabo Mbeki was ousted by the African National Congress.
And in 2009 when her ex-husband Jacob Zuma assumed office as the president of South Africa, he elected her as his Minister of Home Affairs, a position she still holds in addition to her new position as chairperson of the African Union Commission.
In her acceptance speech, Dlamini Zuma recognized that her appointment as the chairperson of the African Union Commission was not only a personal victory, but also a victory “for the African continent in general and for women in particular.” In her new role, she will be responsible for the day-to-day management of the African Union, including defending its interests and preparing strategic plans and studies for the consideration of the Executive Council. Some of the areas the Commission is responsible for are Peace and Security, Social Affairs, Political Affairs, Economic Affairs and Rural Economy and Agriculture.
She is obviously a very intelligent and capable woman and we are looking forward to the changes and progress her tenure will bring – if any.