On Monday, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 63, won an election to become the first woman ever to chair the African Union (AU).
Across Africa, many are thrilled to see a female heading up what is arguably the continent's most powerful international organization. But Dlamini-Zuma's victory is significant for other reasons, as well. She is from South Africa -- the continent's largest economy -- and this has raised concerns in the smaller, poorer countries that have historically fielded candidates for the job.
Considering these political dynamics, not to mention the many serious challenges facing the AU today, Dlamini-Zuma will be under intense scrutiny in the coming weeks. Among other issues, people will wonder if she is a strong enough leader to bridge regional divisions and address the various crises that plague the continent?
The Fairer Sex
That the African Union now has its first female chair is a very big deal. In general, African countries have a poor record for women's equality as compared to the rest of the world. According to a 2011 report from the World Economic Forum, the top 20 countries in terms of gender equality include only two African nations; one is South Africa and the other, a tiny kingdom called Lesotho, is an enclave of South Africa. But of the 20 countries at the bottom of the list, nine are African.
Fertility rates, a strong indicator of women's health and education levels, paint an even drearier picture. The 25 countries with the highest fertility rates -- going up to 7.52 children per woman in Niger, which tops the list -- are all African except for Afghanistan, which comes in at number nine.
Furthermore, many war-torn countries face severe problems in terms of violence and sexual assault against women. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, has a horrific record for rape -- it was reported last year that 48 women were raped there every hour. And in heavily conflicted regions in Western Africa, a 2012 investigation found that domestic violence is women's biggest security threat.
These troubled zones are somewhat balanced by reports of women's' progress in several other African countries. Liberia and Malawi have both elected female presidents. In Rwanda, women outnumber men in parliament.
And now a woman will lead the continent's most influential international organization.
A Different Division
Dlamini-Zuma was the victor in a protracted electoral battle, beating out the incumbent Jean Ping, who hails from Gabon. The election was polarizing, but that had little to do with Dlamini-Zuma's gender.
Instead, the fight for the chair of the AU turned into a showdown between two big continental blocs: the generally Anglophone large economies in southern and eastern Africa, and the less-developed, majority-Francophone countries in central and western Africa.
There is a longstanding unofficial agreement concerning leadership of the 54-member AU: the big economies, which have the funds to dominate diplomatic discourse in their own ways, are typically expected not to vie for the AU's top seat.
The Guardian reports that Egypt, Libya, Nigeria Algeria and South Africa currently make up the bulk of the AU budget. For that reason, representatives of smaller countries -- like Ping's Gabon -- have traditionally been the ones elected to chair the organization.
Now, that's about to change. But Dlamini-Zuma has pledged not to make the AU an extension of South Africa.
I do not think the continent will be polarized, she said, according to Agence France-Presse, adding that the AU chair would make sure they work with everybody, irrespective of where and who they voted for.
Her supporters made similar arguments during her campaign, pointing to her past as a South African freedom fighter under apartheid as evidence that her concerns are universal ones, and that she is not beholden to provincial concerns and local bureaucracies.
This Woman's Worth
Dlamini-Zuma served as the Minister of Health in South Africa under President Nelson Mandela during the 1990s; before that, she was a member of the African National Congress while it was still an illegal party. She has long specialized in health care issues, having attained a medical degree after years of study in both Africa and England.
She met Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, while working at a hospital in Swaziland; they were married in 1972. The couple had four children, but she divorced from the polygamous politician in 1998.
Dlamini-Zuma then became the Minister of Foreign Affairs for South Africa; since 2009, she has served as the Minister of Home Affairs in her former husband's cabinet. Now, South Africa will lose one of its longest-serving politicians as Dlamini-Zuma takes her seat at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
President Zuma had kind words for his ex-wife upon the announcement of her victory in the AU election. It means a lot for Africa... for the continent, unity and the empowerment of women -- very important, he said.
Other South Africans are likewise happy to have a representative of their country ascend to a position of power in the international sphere.
But now that the big election is over, bigger questions remain as to how effectively Dlamini-Zuma will use her powers as the AU leader.
The Dictators' Club
The AU has been criticized for a lack of efficacy in the past -- it has a knack for making resolutions without actually achieving implementation.
The AU was inaugurated in 2002, but it has a longer history; it is a reincarnation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was cobbled together during the tumultuous 1960s. It has been derided as a dictator's club, and in fact the first chair was the much-revered but oft-criticized Haile Selassie I, an Ethiopian emperor who had ambitious plans for his country but who could also be violently repressive and resistant to democratic change.
The second chair was Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, a similarly polarizing figure who made modernizing reforms in Egypt and helped to liberate it from its colonial past, but who was also accused of severe human rights violations and intolerance towards dissent.
Other dictatorial chairpersons included Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Uganda's Idi Amin, and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
Even the African Union itself was created in large part at the behest of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, whose name today is associated with brutal oppression and a capricious dictatorial style of governance.
Gaddafi envisioned the AU as something akin to the European Union -- eventual goals included a shared currency and a common military.
But the presence of autocrats in the AU and OAU has weakened its ability to serve as a legitimate pan-African authority. To this day, there are no specific guidelines that prohibit the membership of repressive states, and this became most apparent as a stumbling block in 2011 when the AU resisted intervention in the Libyan uprising that killed thousands of people before Gaddafi himself was killed in October.
This crisis helped to motivate Dlamini-Zuma to contest Ping's leadership, and her victory shows that the organization may be gearing up for some serious changes.
Hit the Ground Running
How will the new chairwoman fare? It won't take long to find out. The AU faces pressing issues that will require her immediate attention.
In Mali, the AU may soon have to intervene militarily to expel militant Islamists from northern areas while the government in the capital city of Bamako haltingly recovers from a sudden coup engineered by military members in March. Northern Mali was invaded by an ethnic group called the Tuaregs beginning in January, but has since become a haven for an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, militants of the M23 rebel group have engaged in violent skirmishes with the Congolese Army, taking control of several towns in the country's eastern region. Their alleged ties to the Tutsi-led government of post-genocide Rwanda threaten to exacerbate tribal animosities in central Africa, and the AU said on Sunday that it was ready to send peacekeeping troops to the area.
Then there's the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan; the latter formally declared independence from the former just over a year ago, but a protracted struggle over who will control the region's oil revenues keeps tensions high. The presidents of both nations met in Addis Ababa this weekend in an attempt to negotiate a solution; meanwhile, both countries' economies are deteriorating due to the standoff. The AU will play a major role in brokering lasting peace.
And so Dlamini-Zuma has her hands full from day one.
In coming days, the world will be watching to see whether her South African roots change the aims of the organization, whether her experiences as a doctor and a freedom fighter motivate her to focus on humanitarian issues, and whether her gender will have any impact on her policies as she works to bring peace and prosperity to the diverse member states of the AU.