VICTORY: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's election as head of the African Union Commission should extend SA's influence in Africa. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

NKOSAZANA Dlamini-Zuma, who became chairwoman of the African Union (AU) Commission on Sunday night, has her work cut out. After the celebrations die down, she will wake up to the reality of the tough job she has on her hands.

There are simmering conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Guinea-Bissau. That is the reality of this job, which is about running the administrative arm of the 54-member AU.

This is a baptism of fire for her, as she prepares to sit like a company CEO, at the helm of the AU's administrative arm.

While the AU members were deliberating on her election in Addis Ababa, Rwanda and the Congo agreed to an international force to intervene in the Congo.

Consequently, at the summit members agreed on the need for international peacekeepers.

The United Nations (UN) force has "in principle" been accepted. Rwandan President Paul Kagame said both sides had agreed in principle to accept the force.

He was speaking after his first face-to-face meeting with Congo President Joseph Kabila since a UN report in June accused Rwanda of supporting Congolese rebels. The two met at the summit, which was scheduled to finish yesterday.

Leaders from Rwanda and the Congo will meet again early next month to try to thrash out the details of the force - including size, mandate, nationality and deployment details - for eastern Congo. UN peacekeepers are already in the region. UN deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson has called for an immediate end to the violence, warning countries of the region to respect the principle of noninterference.

Back home, Dr Dlamini-Zuma's victory is a feather in the cap for SA's foreign policy. President Jacob Zuma will breathe a sigh of relief. He often finds himself putting out domestic fires in the African National Congress (ANC's) succession race. His detractors in the ANC say SA's standing on the continent has dropped under his presidency. This victory arms him with a response to those who say he is not a strong foreign policy president.

Mr Zuma looks set for re-election in December. But the balance of power in the ANC is a seesaw. Mr Zuma seems to be rising to the challenge despite suffering a setback at the ANC's policy conference last month, when a policy concept he had endorsed was trashed.

The victory will bolster his standing in SA, as Mr Zuma has proved he can play the shrewd political game in the minefield of African politics. This is also a big victory for the ANC, because it wants to be recognised as a strong force on the continent. Holding the position is seen as a matter of prestige more than political influence, as Dr Dlamini-Zuma will not be taking political decisions on her own, says Tom Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Coupled with Mr Zuma's role as the "champion" of infrastructure development on the continent, the position will give SA more clout.

Mr Zuma volunteered to head infrastructure development last year. This role is being co-ordinated by National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. The job entails co-ordinating infrastructure networks such as roads and railways between SA and East Africa.

SA is also a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council. Dr Dlamini-Zuma's win may put more wind in SA sails so much that a push for a permanent UN seat will not sound like a far-fetched idea. But Mr Wheeler says: "It's a nice idea, but in my view it's not going to happen."

The AU Commission position has up to now been held by small countries. SA's victory breaks that trend - encouraged by a gentleman's agreement, though this was questioned by SA's diplomats.

Mr Wheeler says Dr Dlamini-Zuma has six months to acquaint herself with her new role, before the next heads of state summit.

The summits are held twice a year. One of the immediate tasks filling vacancies, but firstly establishing if there is enough money to fill them. She would also need to win the confidence of her bosses, in a charged environment.

The race increased tensions between French-and English-speaking Africa, and also pitted regional bloc s in Southern Africa and West Africa against each other, which could create a tense environment after the election.

For SA's International Affairs Minister Nkoana Maite-Mashabane, there has to be change within the AU. "What should change (with her election) . there will be more accountability and fast-tracked implementation of decisions taken by the heads of state," she says.

With Sapa

mkokelis@bdfm.co.za