16/11/2017 04:14 GMT | Updated 16/11/2017 05:20 GMT

President Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma: What Would We Be In For?

What kind of president would the veteran politician make?

Rogan Ward / Reuters
Former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma reacts before addressing a lecture to members of the African National Congress Youth League in Durban, South Africa, April 20, 2017.


After five wearying days in December, and against enormous odds, the ANC's elective conference reaches its zenith, ready to crown its new champion.

A fierce anti-apartheid stalwart, three-time minister and former chair of the continent's largest political body rises excitedly from her seat to raucous cheers from thousands of electrified delegates. Others, panicked or even incensed, bite their lips in silent dismay, realising their alternative simply wasn't a must.

ANC president Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma walks onto the stage and into the country's most powerful position, the first woman leader of a century-old liberation movement, and in all probability the country's president-in-waiting.

Soon catchy slogans on street poles -- adored and lampooned in equal measure -- wither in the December heat. Candidate and campaigner becomes commander-in-chief, and the real work must now begin.

But behind the controversy-laden, albeit consistent, campaign message of radical economic transformation, who exactly is this newly elected leader of the mighty ANC, and what does she bring to the table?

Zuma 2.0 or a radically transformed government?

Though publicly framed and derided as Jacob Zuma's "ex-wife" (disingenuously and lazily so), Dlamini-Zuma's political career long precedes her first encounter with Jacob Zuma, while they were in exile. It also transcends their marriage -- which ended some two decades ago -- by leaps and bounds.

READ: Here's A List Of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's Accomplishments So You Don't Call Her Zuma's Ex Again

A passionate activist and learned medical doctor turned liberation negotiator and minister, the bulk of her story can be written without much reference to the incumbent.

In addition, unlike the man to whom she has been inextricably tied in a prevailing media narrative, Dlamini-Zuma's record in office is mixed and far more complex.

At the helm of the department of health from 1994, she managed to establish the beginnings of free primary healthcare for mothers and children, despite inheriting a deeply fragmented and unequal system from the preceding era. Her office also championed the fight against tobacco, resulting in landmark legislation in 1996 (setting aside, temporarily, the irony of allegations that she has received campaign funding from a tobacco smuggler).

With the help of the Treatment Action Campaign and then-president Thabo Mbeki, she pushed back and won against so-called "big pharma" in her effort to secure more affordable medicines from third parties, in what was undoubtedly a big win for an emerging democracy and its constituents.

"[This] was a fight against tough international pressure. I think the pushback from South Africa was really big, and it took a lot of courage to push back against that. So in that sense [she was] courageous, stubborn and, I think, willing to fight the good fight," said Carien du Plessis, political journalist and author of the (unofficial) Dlamini-Zuma biography "Woman in the Wings".

Her command over home affairs, however, was her shining light as a public servant, having effected a massive turnaround in one of the country's most notorious, crisis-ridden departments, albeit on the groundwork laid by her predecessor Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

"[NDZ] has got a reputation as a technocrat. She gets the processes and paperwork right. People who have worked with her [in the past have] said she had a good knack of appointing people around her who know how to do the job, Du Plessis told HuffPost.

She might not necessarily know [how to do everything], but she knows how to get people who know how to do the job.

Scandal, however, has proven much stickier than success.

The sin of the R14-million Sarafina II ''Aids theatre project' has been the major blunder attached to her name, for which "she never really took accountability", said Du Plessis. Columnist Gareth van Onselen goes so far as to name it South Africa's "first Nkandla", saying a "majoritarian disdain for accountability" in the ANC has its roots in this early 1990s scandal.

He also draws attention to a "far more important and profound" scandal, the so-called 'Virodene affair', which he writes "burnt a hole right through the heart of her reputation".

Her tenure as minister of foreign affairs was a mixed bag too, says Du Plessis, with her ostensible support of former president Thabo Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" approach to Zimbabwe also coming under fire, and overshadowing her partial success in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Whither networks of patronage and corruption?

Fast-forward a decade or so, and Dlamini-Zuma returned from Addis Ababa, having served as the African Union chair from 2012 to 2017, to much fanfare at her homecoming celebration at OR Tambo Airport.

Since her return, however, her (positive and negative) record as a public servant and representative of South Africa has mostly fallen by the wayside. Instead, many eyes (or at least a critical media gaze) have been on the company she keeps.

The leaders of the ANC Women's League (ANCWL) and Youth League (ANCYL), Bathabile Dlamini and Collen Maine respectively, are two of her most prominent endorsers actively rallying the support of their wings of the ANC, and then some.

But both leaders whom she has kept close, in particular Dlamini of 'smalanyana skeletons' and SASSA grants crisis infamy as social development minister, have attracted a perennial flow of scathing criticism over scandals and (in the case of Maine) alleged links to the Guptas.

Add notorious uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) spokesperson Carl Niehaus to the mix -- with flaming dance moves and incendiary media statements lambasting "white monopoly capital masters" attempting to "destroy" her campaign -- and talk of her previous accomplishments vanishes from the mainstream without a trace.

The most damning criticism of her fight for the presidency, however, has been suggestions it would further entrench networks of patronage and take a soft stance on corruption cemented during the Zuma era.

Still, in response to scathing appraisals that her leadership would mean nothing less than a continuation of a 'corrupt' status quo, she has passionately insisted on the integrity of her campaign, candidacy and plan for the country.

Her response to recent allegations she is being funded by a tobacco smuggler is a case in point:

"People can accuse me of many things, but not corruption. I'm not corrupt and I don't loot," she said in November.

Dlamini-Zuma, Du Plessis argues, is a woman of many contradictions. But which version(s) of Dlamini-Zuma should the public expect to lead the country if she's made president?

The highly qualified, effective technocrat? The progressive, principled activist? The un/accountable minister? A magnet for (at least some) of the ANC's most notorious figures?

And contrary to a deeply entrenched media narrative of the impossibility of a clean government under Dlamini-Zuma, could she as president in fact dismantle rather than more deeply entrench the networks of patronage and corruption overwhelming the body politic and ravaging the country's institutions?

"She's definitely got the ability to dismantle these networks [and may potentially] appoint task teams to combat corruption," Du Plessis remarked.

"But has she got the political will?"

A bigger and more important question, Du Plessis says, is whether she'd be able to "get rid of the indebtedness to a lot of people who have campaigned for her".

"Those people who sing, dance and campaign for her are not doing it for the love of the cause. They want positions. We've seen Carl Niehaus, for example, taking out his best dance moves... and he's an old man. You don't do that hard work if you don't expect something in return".