At last week's summit, African Union leaders took a bold step by electing a woman from one of the continent's powerhouse nations to lead the commission.
The leadership of the 54-nation body has been in electoral deadlock for the past 6 months, a time in which Africa experienced two coups des-etats as well as ongoing conflicts. For that reason alone, the victory for South Africa's Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma over incumbent Jean Ping from Gabon drew sighs of relief, allaying fears that the AU would continue to be without strong leadership for another 6 months. It also raised hopes that with the might of Africa's largest economic and political power behind it, the union may wield more influence.
An election in January led to an embarrassing stalemate as neither candidates garnered the required two-thirds majority, leading to former foreign minister Ping remaining in place until the recent summit.
"The issue has been hugely destructive," Jakkie Cilliers, the director of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies said immediately after the vote. "Now at least we can get back to key issues."
On the security front, those issues are familiar: renewed tension between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; entrenched disputes and occasional border conflict between long-time foes Sudan and South Sudan; and the turmoil afflicting Mali, which has suffered a military coup, an Islamic insurgency and the declaration of a breakaway province this year.
The constraints are equally familiar. West Africa's regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, announced in May its intention to launch a peacekeeping force to Mali. Needing funds and authorization, the plan was passed up the chain via the AU to the United Nations Security Council - the global body responded earlier this month by asking for a more thorough plan. With the threat of intervention delayed, the AU is pushing for the creation of a 'national-unity government' while ascendant Islamic rebels destroy historic tombs in Timbuktu, and the country effectively remains without a government in the capital, Bamako.
Although progress is being made in creating a permanent African peacekeeping force, the African Standby Force, the continent will still have to rely on cash from outside to fund operations. The AU Commission that Dlamini-Zuma now heads relies on donors for around half of its budget, and its new $200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa was a gift from the Chinese. Discussions to find alternative financing mechanism at last week's meet did not yield any significant ideas.
With South African influence to the fore it may not only be logistics that prevents a more proactive response to crises, Cilliers argues. "Dlamini-Zuma will bring the South African hostility to the 'West' to the AU," he argues. "Less focus on intervention, less focus on human rights, etc; greater focus on regime stability."
South Africa's stance on Syria's ongoing crisis is telling. "There is no military solution to the dispute" South Africa's Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ebrahim Ebrahi said. The recent bombing in Damascus and massacres "clearly shows that there are two sides to this conflict". In Cote D'Ivoire last year, the South African government backed incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo long after most of the rest of the world - including the AU - had called on him to step down after losing an election.
The South African approach in general is "politically close to Chinese and Russian views," Cilliers says. "The African National Congress is still, to a large degree, trapped in a liberation mindset. So it tends to view the world in something of an East-West dichotomy."
Instead, with the strong managerial skills of Dlamini-Zuma at the helm, the commission will focus less on security issues and more on the economic integration and increasing low intra-African trade agenda that has been the theme of the last two summits, he believes.
At pains to stress that Dlamini-Zuma, the former wife of President Zuma, is not the government's stalking horse, the president's spokesman Mac Maharaj said South Africa would be seeking to replicate integration success stories such as the ongoing North-South transport corridor. "We need to get similar projects driven as hard and as moving forward as speedily in the rest of Africa," he said in Addis Ababa.
In her post-victory address, the new head of the commission avoided policy prescriptions, instead focusing on African unity after a rancorous election, and a cry for the AU to live up to the continent's potential.
"We must remind ourselves that our heroes and heroines who were very Pan-Africanist had a vision of a united economically and politically-emancipated continent at peace with itself and the world," said Dlamini-Zuma after her victory. "The challenge that faces us is how do we translate that vision and dream into reality and into making sure the needs of our people are met."