Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma- The First Female Leader of the African Union

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Someone once said, and I verily believe that peak performers are people who are committed to a compelling mission. It is very clear that they care about what they do and their efforts, energies, and enthusiasms are traceable back to that particular mission. This is what I see in the lives of the great men and women that have made their marks in our dear Continent. One of these great seeds of Africa is the ever vibrant and industrious Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini- Zuma; a South African politician and former anti-apartheid activist.

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She was South Africa’s Minister of Health from 1994 to 1999, under President Nelson Mandela, then Minister of Foreign Affairs from 17 June 1999 to 10 May 2009, under Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Molanthe. She was also Minister of Home Affairs in the Cabinet of President Jacob Zuma, her ex-husband, a capacity in which she served until her resignation on 2 October 2012. Few days later, on 15 October precisely she became the first woman to head the African Union.

Dlamini-Zuma was born in Natal on 27 January 1949, the eldest of eight children. She completed high school at the Amanzimtoti Training College in 1967. In 1971, she started her studies in Zoology and Botany at the University of Zululand, from where she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Science (BSc). She subsequently started her medical studies at the University of Natal.

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This woman of substance did not always have it smooth and easy, neither was she one born into affluence; she was the eldest child of a poor schoolteacher in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa who could barely provide for his children. Despite the unpleasant effect of poverty and the racism of apartheid that marred her childhood, Dlamini-Zuma strived for excellence; an effort that was clearly not in futility. A few years down the line, she graduated as a doctor and a researcher. Her experiences as a child also drove her into activism and by her twenties she had joined the African National Congress (ANC), a prominent anti-apartheid group and the current ruling political party in South Africa.

She was also a leading figure  in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)  a radical movement that encouraged black South Africans to assert themselves in a political environment in which being black was second-rated. She soon became actively involved in student politics and by 1976 was appointed Vice-President of the South African Students’ Organization. A few months down the line, the Soweto tragedy struck; children across the country, most of whom where converts of the BCM took to the streets in protest for a better education. This led to a series of uncontrollable incidents, in the midst of which Dlamini-Zuma left the country and her education to live in exile in Botswana, Tanzania and subsequently in England where she completed her medical training in the University of Bristol in 1978. BBC quoted her as saying of her decision, “being proud of what you are and asserting yourself is a great start, but it doesn’t liberate the country–you need a bit more than that.”

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In 1980 Zuma returned to Africa, this time to Swaziland, where she worked as a Paediatrician for nearly five years, and then met Jacob Zuma who she eventually married in 1982.

Dlamini-Zuma returned to England in the 1980s where she earned a diploma in tropical child health from the University of Liverpool in 1986. While there she continued to be active in the ANC serving as Vice-Chairperson and then Chairperson for the Regional Political Committee of the ANC in England. In 1989 Dlamini-Zuma joined the health department of the ANC in Zambia and in 1991, she returned to South Africa and began to play governmental roles in the revivification of her country from the devastating aftermath of apartheid. Now I think; what a life! This great daughter of Africa has had her share of struggles, challenges, criticisms and disappointments and yet stands strong and refuses to be moved by the winds of frustration and discouragement. Instead she strides in courage and determination, breaking barriers and defying boundaries. She has excelled in very obvious ways and has gained political prominence. With her there is really not a dull moment.

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As Minister of Health, she challenged the patent rights of international pharmaceutical companies, making way for extensive distribution of generic anti- retrovirals and low cost medicines. She also pioneered an anti- smoking campaign and ensured accountability for Tobacco companies. According to the BBC: “She made it her mission to deliver public health care to millions of dispossessed South Africans, and in just a few short years succeeded in changing the focus of a health system previously exclusively geared to cater for whites. For the first time in the country’s history, pregnant women and children under six had access to free primary health care…and a previously divided and unequal health service was united.”

At 64 and counting, this great woman is still touching lives and uniting South-Africans and Africans. What will you fight for?

© 2013 – 2017, Lovelyn Okafor. All rights reserved.

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