Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been:
- A guerilla
- A medical doctor
- A political leader
- A liberation negotiator
- A health minister
- A foreign affairs minister
- A home affairs minister
- The head of the African Union (AU)
Yet since her official nomination to the presidency of the governing ANC at the weekend, the shorthand used to describe her is "ex-wife". If anything, President Jacob Zuma should be called Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's ex-husband.
In numerous headlines, Dlamini-Zuma's decision to stand for the party (and therefore the country's) top post is captured as "Jacob Zuma's ex-wife" running. The implications of this lazy writing is enormous, for contained in it is the assumption that she is only a proxy for the continuation of a corrupt and self-serving regime, the spare rib of a husband she divorced 18 years ago.
The implication is that despite her stellar contribution to liberation, despite the fact that she held three senior ministerial roles and that she has been capped numerous times for her achievements, she is but an extension of her ex-husband. Ex, nogal.
If such logic were applied to Zimbabwe's first lady Grace Mugabe, who is working hard to take over when husband Robert Mugabe shuffles off this mortal coil, the sexist shorthand may be understandable.
But Dlamini-Zuma was an activist before she met and married her husband Jacob. Her early history is a story like that of pioneer scientist Charlotte Maxeke – a trailblazer who graduated as a doctor against all odds. Dlamini-Zuma read for her medical degree at the University of Natal and completed it in the UK at the University of Bristol. She studied in Durban at the same time as black consciousness leader Steve Biko and combined activism with studying.
When she graduated, she met and married Zuma, who was exiled in Swaziland, where she worked as a young doctor. Dlamini-Zuma had a political history, which preceded and, arguably, exceeded her ex-husband's. Upon liberation, Jacob Zuma was a provincial minister in KwaZulu-Natal while Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma became the country's first health minister in the national Cabinet.
Upon liberation, Jacob Zuma was a provincial minister in KwaZulu-Natal while Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma became the country's first health minister in the national Cabinet.
While her role is, again, often short-handed to the Sarafina scandal in which public health education funds were misspent, the bigger legacy is that she introduced free healthcare for the poor, for women and for children under six years old, which was recognised globally for bringing down the maternal mortality rate. She also pioneered anti-tobacco legislation.
At both the foreign affairs and home affairs ministries, Dlamini-Zuma modernised apartheid policy and practice. Her role at foreign affairs was particularly important because she inherited the post from the dismal ANC veteran Alfred Nzo, who largely failed to reshape isolationist apartheid international relations towards an African focus.
When she decided to compete for the position of the chairperson of the commission of the AU, Dlamini-Zuma ran a long and difficult race against Gabonese incumbent Jean Ping. She succeeded and held the post for two terms although the jury is still out on how well she did in that seat.
Dlamini-Zuma is a popular ANC leader: at numerous elective conferences, her name was right near the top of the list of national leaders. When former president Thabo Mbeki axed her ex-husband as deputy president, she was offered his job. But after consulting their four children, Dlamini-Zuma decided not to take the job.
She has now decided to go for it – and, if anything, her ex-husband, with his numerous scandals is a hindrance rather than a sponsor.