Africa split after election win for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

South Africa accused of heavy-handed tactics as President's ex-wife named head of 54-nation bloc

South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been appointed the first female head of the African Union, prompting accusations that the nation is looking to dominate the politics of the continent.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma beat incumbent Jean Ping, from Gabon, after a bruising six-month leadership battle which highlighted lingering divisions between Africa's Anglophone and Francophone nations and deflected attention from crises, including the conflict in the Sudans and DR Congo, as well as coups in West Africa and the hunger crisis in the Sahel region.

The former wife of South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, got 60 per cent of the votes she needed from the 54-nation bloc to see off Mr Ping at a summit during the weekend in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

With voting split along linguistic lines, Ms Dlamini-Zuma's victory was also seen as a win for Anglophone nations. But South Africa, the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, was accused of bullying smaller nations in a "face-saving exercise" having failed to win enough support to take the post in January. Diplomats spoke of a "difficult heads of state meeting" and complained that South Africa may have "pushed too hard" to get Ms Dlamini-Zuma appointed.

After her win, the widely respected 63-year-old attempted to reassure smaller economies that Pretoria was not looking to dominate the continent: "South Africa is not going to come to Addis Ababa to run the AU," she said. "It is Dlamini-Zuma who is going to come to make a contribution."

The prospect of another six months of squabbling appeared to concentrate minds in Addis Ababa, along with fears of a further loss of credibility for an organisation already viewed by some observers as an ineffective talking shop. The failure of many nations to pay their membership dues means that for all its talk of a prosperous Africa, the bloc depends on international donors for much of its $274m annual budget. That influence was underlined by China's gift of a headquarters in the Ethiopian capital.

The AU's new leader at least comes into the job with a respectable report card from her ministerial career in South Africa. Often described as a "stalwart" of the ruling African National Congress, she has been in government for longer than her former partner, the president. "She's a capable and hard-working minister," said Catherine Grant from the South African Institute of International Affairs. "She's not in her position because of her relationship to Zuma."

Her backers say she has demonstrated a serious commitment to development issues and is a good negotiator. She has held the health and foreign jobs and most recently the home affairs ministry, where she was credited with successful reforms. She carries with her the mixed legacy of South African foreign policy, with successes such as being added to the "BRICS" club of emerging economies, as well as failures such as the country's ineffective diplomacy with neighbouring Zimbabwe.

In the ten years since taking over from the Organisation of African Nations, the AU has struggled to make much of an impact on the major challenges facing the continent but can point to some recent progress in Somalia.

Political polygamy: the wives of Zuma

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma has four children with the new African Union head, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. But the pair divorced in 1998 before she entered government. The openly polygamous 67-year-old President has married another four women since that annulment and now has six wives. Some estimates of the number of Mr Zuma's children reach as high as 20. He was forced into a rare public apology over his private life two years ago after revelations he had fathered a baby with a woman who is not one of his wives, which prompted widespread anger.

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