Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former minister with a mixed track record in three portfolios, is Cyril Ramaphosa’s main rival in the race for the ANC presidency but her campaign is compromised by her personal links to President Jacob Zuma and perceptions that she has been fielded to protect his interests.
Dlamini-Zuma, 68, and Zuma were married for six years in the 1980s after meeting in exile where she worked as a medical doctor.
Her medical qualifications saw Nelson Mandela appoint her as health minister in 1994 and for the next 18 years she was a constant fixture in the Cabinet.
As health minister she is best remembered for banning smoking in public buildings and the Sarafina II scandal, in which she was found to have lied to Parliament about the source of funding for a musical about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Dlamini-Zuma shifted the blame to the director general of the department, Olive Shisana, and survived to become foreign minister under Thabo Mbeki at a time when South Africa sought to negotiate an end to the Congolese war and was forced to confront the unfolding political crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Foreign diplomats considered her a lightweight trying to find her way through one of the continent’s most complex conflicts in the DRC, and she bore a fair share of the criticism for Mbeki’s failed policy of “silent diplomacy” towards Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
But at home affairs Dlamini-Zuma won respect for turning around a notoriously inept department. Her response to the suicide of a young jobseeker who had been battling in vain to obtain an ID document from the department, showed a deeply human side of the minister.
She attended his funeral, took responsibility for the department’s failures and vowed to redouble efforts to resolve them.
In 2012, she exited Cabinet to become chairwoman of the African Union Commission, after bruising manoeuvring by South Africa and its allies to counter the influence of the continent’s Francophone nations and by extension that of Paris.
If she sought to apply her dogged efficiency to straightening out AU bureaucracy in Addis Ababa, Dlamini-Zuma again proved that she was not a natural diplomat.
She struggled to heal divisions in the bloc and offended donor nations with her suspicion of Western motives, rooted critics say in stagnant ANC ideology.
Her return to South Africa as Zuma’s preferred successor and the increasingly messy run-up to the December conference has landed her on the political stump, where she has come out in support of expropriation without compensation to speed up land redistribution.
She ventured that the ANC would need to be “clever” about lobbying other parties to gain their support for changing the constitution in this regard.
The populist statements contrast strongly with the pragmatism she espoused as a minister, and lead back to her support camp.
On Monday, she emerged at the top of the ANC Women’s League slate, which includes Free State Premier Ace Magashule and his Mpumalanga counterpart David Mabuza, members of the staunchly pro-Zuma “premier league”.
In the week leading up to Women’s League national executive committee where the slate was decided, there were suggestions that her campaign has backing from compromising quarters — the Gupta family alleged to have swindled billions out the state and shady tobacco trader Adriano Mazzotti.
Dlamini-Zuma took to Twitter to respond to a Sunday press story that she accepted funding from Mazzotti, writing: “People can accuse me of many things, but not corruption. I’m not corrupt and I don’t loot.”
She has flatly denied knowing Mazzotti, though his social media trail suggests otherwise.
It will be easier to shrug off testimony before a parliamentary inquiry into Eskom that told of Ajay Gupta plotting to strengthen her chances of clinching the party leadership in December as it is comes from a lone witness, but it will not help perceptions that a technocrat who sidestepped factional battles to serve under three presidents is not her own woman at this point.