Taking on imperialism
It is strange that after beating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma over four rounds of voting this week, Jean Ping essentially lost to himself in the last round of voting, writes Vukani Mde
The dramatic anti-climax to the African Union's election earlier this week produced a strange outcome, where one party lost a battle that the other did not win.
How did this happen? For one thing, AU voting rules require a candidate to win two-thirds of votes cast.
In fact, they require that even when unopposed, any candidate for an AU post must still get 66% of the votes cast.
This is why Jean Ping, after beating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma over four rounds of voting, essentially lost to himself in the fifth and last round of voting.
Since the vote, most commentary in this country has understandably focused on what these developments mean for South African diplomacy and our country's place on the continent.
However, I'm of the view that the inconclusive election says more about the AU than it does about us. Dlamini-Zuma "lost" this fight not through any fault of hers or ours, but as a result of Africa's fault lines.
We should question the wisdom of setting such a high bar for electoral success in so divided a continent as this one.
Yes, the drafters of the AU rules wanted to encourage consensus.
The rules prevent the numerically largest region of the continent winning every vote.
Under current rules, each region or faction would have to seek some support from those outside its immediate ambit to win the required number of votes.
The trade-off, of course, is the very real risk of paralysis should consensus not be possible, as happened this week.
Herein lies the rub. The AU chairperson is a powerful post, or would be, if its functioning wasn't subject to the vagaries of intra-continental and regional rivalries.
The commission is the administrative arm of the AU, the implementers of the grand plans that heads of state devise twice a year.
Everything from political goals like the African Peer Review Mechanism, to developmental ones like the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), the commission is the nuts and bolts of the grandiose vision for Africa in the 21st century.
Unfortunately the political inadequacies of the AU are mirrored in the commission's administrative morass.
Ping was never really the man (or woman) to take the AU commission to where it was supposed to go in 2008.
Since taking over, the administrative weaknesses which were to be expected from what was a new organisation have only worsened.
Ping is the former foreign minister of Gabon, the small, oil rich ex-French colony. He won the post in 2008 with 31 of 46 votes cast.
Since then, Ping's support has remained at 31. He received that many votes in Addis Ababa last Sunday, holding it over four rounds of voting.
Incidentally, 31 is also the number of Francophone countries, the cabal of French-speaking former possessions of Paris.
While 31 was enough in 2008, when 46 countries voted, it wasn't enough when 53 voted.
And so the AU is faced with the dilemma that its commission chair has failed to unite the continent behind him, leaving it without a head for at least six months.
But most interesting are the reasons why Ping failed to unite Africa's leaders behind him. Other than the technical failures in the commission, there is a political reason for his humiliating rejection by half of Africa's leaders.
There has been an increasing suspicion in some regions that rule by Ping is rule by France. Indeed Paris spent a lot of euros in an attempt to get him re-elected.
The suspicion of growing French neo-imperialism is the key reason Pretoria nominated Dlamini-Zuma, thus rejecting the argument that none of Africa's "big countries" - South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Kenya - should control the commission.
Pretoria lost the battle against Ping this week, but took the first steps towards winning the war against a new imperialism.
Vukani Mde is SADC editor of Southern Africa Report