IT IS with relief and expectation that we greet the fact Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has finally made it over the hurdle of internal strife to take on the highest office in the African Union (AU). She won through a tough campaign based on persistence, principle and rigour, which are all excellent tools. By making sure that the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) was behind her, the campaign degraded claims that this was a South African push for power.

By emphasising that the southern region has not had a representative at the head of the organisation for decades, the campaign was able to argue from the standpoint of fairness. By not backing down and forcing the issue, the campaign forced the other side to blink first. It is all extremely satisfying, especially (let's say it) for South Africa. Well done, Ma'am.

Yet there is too much urgent business at hand to dwell on why Dr Dlamini-Zuma won, except for one thing. The fractious nature of the campaign has served to highlight some major regional divides, and those she will need to repair as quickly as possible. Oddly, the battle was labelled an Anglophone-Francophone split, despite the fact that three major non-Francophone countries, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya, did not, at first, support her. Regional divides are quickly replacing historic affiliations, and it is noteworthy that just as Sadc voted as a bloc generally, so did the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

These divides are helping to consolidate and strengthen the continent, but they also create new diplomatic and economic issues. Still, clearly they are not yet strong enough, and the continuing curse of Africa, the failed state syndrome, has placed some critical issues high on the AU's agenda, and consequently on Dr Dlamini-Zuma's too.

They include three regional conflicts, in the Great Lakes region, Mali and Somalia. Each of these has its own, complicated regional history. There is also a range of issues in North Africa, still in the process of consolidation after the "Arab Spring" uprisings.

Those uprisings were confined to North Africa, but they may signal the mood of the times for the continent as a whole. Really fundamental changes are taking place in much of Africa, and a new generation of Africans is beginning to shape the political contours of African states. To be sure, many phony democracies are still with us. Many among them are failed democracies, too.

Yet, if ever there was a time for the AU to spread its wings, it is now. Economic growth rates are soaring on high commodity prices; social changes are gaining traction, and education and health are improving in leaps and bounds. Dr Dlamini-Zuma takes office with some of this wind at her back.

Can she use it? By the low standards of the organisation and its predecessor, it should not be difficult to improve. She certainly has the qualifications, having handled three big portfolios to which she was appointed by four presidents, including that of foreign minister.

But there are niggling concerns. During her tenure as foreign minister, she showed herself on occasion to be less than diplomatic, and sometimes rather harsh and cold. (Although, since her job will include whipping an ineffectual commission into shape, that may be no bad thing.) At health, she got entangled in the Virodene vaccine saga, a poor reflection on her judgment. Likewise the Sarafina theatre saga.

Yet, on balance, she has been a better administrator than most, and an improving one, as her latest job in home affairs attests.

This is critical, since her job at the AU is principally administrative. The post is not really intended to be a political one. Yet it is possible that she might make it more political than it has been, and that might not be totally unwelcome. The continent does deserve and does need a voice, even if it is softly spoken. If Dr Dlamini-Zuma can provide that, it will be a major step forward.