SA's Africa policy lay in ruins yesterday after a bold and high-profile bid to lead the African Union (AU) ended abruptly, as Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma failed to win an election for the AU's top administrative post.
Analysts said the failure was likely to force Pretoria to re-examine its relations on the continent as SA is one of the biggest providers of aid and foreign direct investment.
"President (Jacob) Zuma has been criticised for a weak foreign policy on Africa so he had to show his direction. This will be a crisis for him, that his first attempt to come up with a way to repair his policy has been defeated," said Mehari Taddele Maru, an AU analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.
In scenes reminiscent of SA's exit from football's African Nations Cup qualifiers last year, members of the South African delegation broke into applause and song after the vote at the AU's headquarters, under the mistaken impression that Ms Dlamini-Zuma had won.
It was clear that apart from not having received the backing of Africa's powerhouses, smaller countries also let Pretoria down. While SA was promised 30 votes of the 53 voting candidates, the final tally indicated a switch in allegiance.
The fiercely contested elections showed Ms Dlamini-Zuma got only 26 votes in the first round while the incumbent, Gabon's Jean Ping, received 27. In the second round, Ms Dlamini-Zuma emerged victorious with 27 votes to Mr Ping's 26. The third round saw Mr Ping getting 27 votes to Ms Dlamini-Zuma's 26.
Neither managed to get the required two-thirds majority of 35.
An official of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation blamed the "French influence" for SA's failure to receive the promised 30 votes.
"Even though we didn't receive an outright win, SA has emerged victorious as we have defeated the agenda of the French and foreign intervention in African affairs," the official said.
Observers said the outcome had entrenched divisions and this would further affect the administration of the AU Commission. "Clearly the facade of continental unity has been blown off by the contest," said Mzukisi Qobo of the University of Pretoria.
Jakkie Cilliers of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies said yesterday the elections had worsened tension. "It shows Africa does not want SA to chair the commission and SA's agenda has been shown to have limited appeal as SA does not carry the support it thought it had."
The vote had been at the expense of "African unity", said Tom Wheeler of the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs.
As there was no clear winner, the AU heads of state, gathering in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, were last night discussing a proposal to appoint a legal panel to look at the AU's constitution after it was not clear whether Mr Ping was eligible to continue in his post.
Dr Cilliers said the AU Commission could not risk being without a chairman for the next six months, before a new candidate could be elected in Malawi where the AU heads of state are set to meet next. It was not clear whether the two candidates could stand again.
International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said consultations would be undertaken to determine whether SA would field another candidate.
"We will consult but we strongly feel that from the informal discussions we have been having, the Southern African Development Community will field a candidate because we have never been given an opportunity to lead this organisation.
"I think the message that is coming out that I want to emphasise is that leaders are saying the time has come and the time is now to capacitate this AU, to strengthen it, but that must come and must come now.
"This is the loud message we are receiving," she said.
Despite its economic might, SA has been regarded as a political lightweight on the continent under the Zuma government and has, in some instances, raised the ire of its peers by backing the wrong horse in international forums.