JOHANNESBURG – With South African President Jacob Zuma facing growing calls to resign over a series of corruption scandals, attention is turning to one potential contender to succeed him — his former wife.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is a long-standing heavyweight in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, holding several ministerial positions since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.
Confirmation last week that Dlamini-Zuma will not run for re-election as head of the African Union (AU) Commission fuelled rumours that she may position herself for a shot at the top job back home.
Her high-profile term running the executive branch of the AU, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, comes to an end in July after four years in the international spotlight.
“There is no doubt that some behind-doors lobbying on her behalf is already underway,” Mcebisi Ndletyana, associate professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg, told AFP.
After failing in their bid to impeach him this week, Zuma’s opponents now hope to prosecute him on graft charges after he leaves office, and the advantages of having his ex-wife — with whom he remains on good terms — succeeding him are clear.
“It may provide a bit of comfort, because I don’t think that she would like to see the father of her children jailed,” Ndletyana said.
But Dlamini-Zuma’s name recognition also presents a dilemma to the ANC, where some factions want a clean break from her ex-husband’s tarnished reign.
“Although she is an accomplished politician, those who are opposed to Zuma may not be too happy with another Zuma taking over,” Ndletyana said.
The ANC normally puts forward its party leader as the presidential candidate, so Dlamini-Zuma would first have to climb her way to the summit of the party in order to succeed.
If she does make a bid for power, her big moment would be the ANC’s elective conference next year where the new party president will be chosen and lobbying for positions is likely to be a bruising exercise.
– ‘A real possibility’? –
Mavuso Msimang, a former senior official under Dlamini-Zuma when she was minister for home affairs, described her as “an extremely intelligent person”.
“It’s a real possibility that she would become president,” Msimang told AFP.
He said she should be “considered on the merit of her experience in the ANC” over years of service.
“I don’t think she would continue the legacy of her former husband,” said Msimang, who added that he was in favour of a female president.
A medical doctor by training, Dlamini-Zuma, like her polygamist ex-husband, hails from the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The couple met in exile in Swaziland, during the depths of the apartheid era. In 1972, Dlamini-Zuma became Zuma’s second wife and the couple went on to have four children.
They divorced in 1998 but still enjoy good relations, often shaking hands and hugging in public at ANC events or government conferences.
Dlamini-Zuma boasts anti-apartheid struggle credentials as an underground member of the ANC when it was still banned. She went on to become democratic South Africa’s first health minister between 1994-1999, appointed by Nelson Mandela.
Mandela successor, Thabo Mbeki, put her in charge of foreign affairs, where she worked to implement his much-derided “quiet diplomacy” with neighbouring Zimbabwe as it sank into a deep crisis under President Robert Mugabe.
In Zuma’s administration, she served as home minister, where she was credited with limited reforms to a department mired in bureaucracy and corruption before she took the African Union Commission posting in 2012.
The soft-spoken Dlamini-Zuma is a loyal ANC member and is seen as relatively scandal-free after being out of domestic politics during the turmoil of recent years.
But she appears to lacks the easy charm and common touch that her former husband has used so effectively to shore up support, and she still must overcome widespread prejudice over her gender.
The ANC in its 104 years of existence has never had a female leader.
In any leadership bid, her main rival will be Zuma’s deputy Cyril Ramaphosa, a business tycoon and former trade unionist who is the second-in-command in the ANC.
Zuma’s term as ANC leader is set to end in 2017. Under the constitution he must stand down as state president after serving a maximum two terms that end in 2019.