South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma took over as head of the African Union Commission on Monday, becoming the first woman at the helm of the pan-African bloc’s executive committee.
AU chairman and President of Benin Thomas Yayi Boni wished Dlamini-Zuma “great success” at the inauguration ceremony in the Ethiopian capital.
Dlamini-Zuma, 63, vowed to address the continent’s hotspots, including ongoing conflict in Mali and the resurgence of Islamist extremists in the drought-stricken Sahel.
“We will... spare no efforts to try and resolve conflicts in Mali and the Sahelian region, the crisis that has the potential to spread across the region and even the continent,” she said in her acceptance address.
Dlamini-Zuma also vowed to support political transition in Somalia, where a new president was elected last month, and promised to address unrest in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
“In the light of the resurgence of renewed conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, we will support all efforts to bring about peace and stability in the DRC and the Great Lakes region,” she said.
Dlamini-Zuma, an ex-wife of South African President Jacob Zuma and who was until her AU appointment home affairs minister, beat the incumbent, Jean Ping of Gabon, in a close election in July.
She is the first person from the predominantly English-speaking southern African region to hold the top Commission job since the AU was created a decade ago.
Some observers had feared her appointment would create divisions between French and English speaking countries on the continent, but she has insisted that she would work with all parties in the 54-member bloc.
In addition to prioritising peace and security, the new chair also promised to support economic development and women’s rights, and boost health and education on the continent.
The handing over ceremony was attended by outgoing commission chair Ping, and Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who addressed the AU for the first time since the death of the late leader Meles Zenawi.
Ping wished Dlamini-Zuma well as he handed over the AU flag, a copy of the AU constitution and the official gavel.
“Today I’m giving way to a great lady of the continent, an eminent sister,” he said.
Hailemariam congratulated Dlamini-Zuma on her win, and said he was confident in her role as commissioner.
“The task ahead could be arduous... but I am confident in her capacity to manage them,” Hailemariam said.
A medical doctor by training and a veteran of the fight against apartheid, Dlamini-Zuma has also served as South Africa’s health and foreign minister.
Born January 27, 1949, in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, Dlamini-Zuma took up politics in high school.
In the 1970s she went into exile, and studied in Britain at the universities of Bristol and Liverpool, while helping organise the anti-apartheid movement overseas.
She met Zuma while working as a paediatrician at a Swaziland hospital and became the polygamist president’s third wife in 1982. They divorced in 1998.
When the ban on the African National Congress was lifted in 1990, she returned home.
After the first democratic elections she was tapped by Mandela to transform the country’s segregated health system.
She is remembered for introducing legislation that overhauled the discriminatory system and gave the poor access to free basic care.
But she was also criticised for championing a controversial HIV drug that was later proved to be ineffective.