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African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has previously served in Cabinet as foreign affairs minister. (AFP)
African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has previously served in Cabinet as foreign affairs minister. (AFP)

President Jacob Zuma is considering appointing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to Cabinet when she steps down on January 27 as African Union Commission chairperson, easing her path to succeeding him as national leader, government officials said.

The move would bolster Dlamini-Zuma’s profile and chances of replacing Zuma as ANC president at a conference in December, according to two deputy ministers and an ANC official who declined to be identified because they’re not authorised to comment. Zuma told state-owned Motsweding FM radio last week the ANC is ready for a female leader and the job won’t automatically go to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the other frontrunner for the top post.

Dlamini-Zuma (67) and Zuma (74) divorced in 1998 and have four children together. Dlamini-Zuma rallied to Zuma’s defence after some ANC leaders called for his ousting at a national executive committee meeting in November, following his implication in a series of scandals. Whoever wins the presidency of the ruling party would be a strong favourite to succeed Zuma as president after elections in 2019, given the party has won every election since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Smooth handover
“She has been out of the country, which means that she hasn’t played a very central role in South African politics,” Nic Borain, a political analyst who advises BNP Paribas Securities South Africa, said on Monday.

“Those running her campaign, and it’s widely speculated that Jacob Zuma is backing her, would probably try and move her into a more central role in politics before the party’s elective conference. I don’t think they would risk putting her in a controversial position in government, for obvious reasons.”

Although Dlamini-Zuma hasn’t formally declared her candidacy, she has said she’s willing to serve if asked to. She appeared to be in campaign mode on January 8 when she joined the ANC’s top six leaders during a walkabout at a rally commemorating the party’s 105th anniversary in Soweto, near Johannesburg.

“We are unaware of any plans of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma after her tenure of office at the AU,” her spokesperson, Jacob Enoh Eben, said.

“That which we are certain of is that she will return to South Africa, after facilitating a smooth handing over to the next AU Commission chairperson.”

Zuma’s spokesperson, Bongani Ngqulunga, wasn’t immediately available to comment.

Experienced politician
“She’s a very experienced South African politician,” Borain said. “She held three Cabinet positions before she was the chairperson of the AU.”

Zuma’s successor will inherit a party plagued by infighting and haemorrhaging support, it had its worst-ever electoral showing in a municipal vote in August and lost control of several key cities, including Pretoria and Johannesburg. The party’s woes have been widely blamed on the president, who’s been implicated in a succession of scandals, including a finding by the nation’s top court that he broke his oath of office by refusing to repay taxpayer money spent on his private home.

Zuma has also been trying to fend off a lawsuit filed by the Democratic Alliance aimed at forcing prosecutors to reinstate 783 graft charges against him that were dropped weeks before he became president in 2009. If he is convicted, his best option for staying out of jail may be to secure a presidential pardon.

Medical posts
Dlamini-Zuma graduated as a doctor from the University of Bristol in 1978 and held several medical posts in the United Kingdom and Swaziland after going into exile during apartheid. When apartheid ended in 1994, Mandela appointed her as his health minister. Although she was lauded for extending access to healthcare to black people, she came under fire for squandering millions of rand of state funds on an ineffectual Aids education play.

Dlamini-Zuma was named foreign affairs minister after former President Thabo Mbeki took office in 1999, a post she held for a decade. Her tenure was marred by her support for President Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, who was accused by Western governments of stealing elections and violently suppressing the opposition. In 1999, Dlamini-Zuma was reassigned to the home affairs ministry and was lauded for overseeing a successful overhaul of the system of issuing identity documents, passports and birth certificates.

She was elected chairperson of the AU Commission in July 2012, after seeing off a re-election bid by Gabon’s Jean Ping. Although she declined to stand for a second term, her tenure was extended by six months last year after AU members failed to agree on a successor.

“It would be massively beneficial for her campaign to have her go back into government because she could get a position that would push her into the limelight,” Susan Booysen, politics professor at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Governance, said.