Egypt is weakened by its post-Tahrir Square politics, Libya is ravaged by civil war and Nigeria, a peer competitor, suffers from insecurities arising from its chaotic democracy.
The balance of power in Africa is flowing south. Pretoria is slowly emerging as Africa’s undisputed heavyweight.
South Africa knows that no foreign policy-policy overtures from Accra or Nairobi would be strong enough to deter its moves. It went for the kill – the African Union commission chair, breaking a gentleman's agreement that the five largest contributors to the AU budget – South Africa, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Nigeria – should not contest the position.
Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma’s win is a major diplomatic victory for South Africa and it is a boost to its hegemonic ambitions of making Africa its 'front yard'.
It significantly strengthens the country’s foreign policy efforts of establishing itself as the continent’s global voice.
With South Africa now driving the continental agenda, it is widely expected that democracy and human rights will be high up on the priorities of the AU.
South Africa’s foreign policy has become somewhat controversial over the last few years; it lacks coherence, substance and a clear direction. It is all over the place.
The country is struggling with an inconsistent identity and indecisiveness on the world stage, it sets itself up as a beacon of democracy and human rights at one moment, and sides with rogue regimes at the next.
At the UN Security Council, South Africa has voted with China and Russia to thwart resolutions and sanctions targeting Iran and Zimbabwe to stop human rights abuses.
This does not augur well for its ‘moral torchbearer’ image.
South Africa voted for the UN Security Council resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya to support the rebels, only to backtrack quickly and criticise the decision claiming its diplomats had not understood the resolution's language. What an embarrassing excuse!
On Egypt, South Africa supported international calls for President Hosni Mubarak to resign. But in a similar situation in Côte d’Ivoire where civil war was imminent, South Africa for months refused to accept Alassanne Ouattara as the internationally recognised president.
In the same vein, South Africa condemns rigged elections and human rights violations in Myanmar, and but remains ambivalent on the same in some African states.
It calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, but refuses to congratulate Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo when he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. They both are in the same struggle, one is branded a democracy champion and the other a dissident, but what is the difference really?
Last year, South Africa voted for UN sanctions on Iran, only for its diplomats to say that they actually meant to vote against the decision. Again, what an embarrassing excuse! The flip-flopping is too much for anyone to take Pretoria seriously.
The new chief
The Dalai Lama farce best illustrates Pretoria's inconsistent global identity and foreign policy; he has been denied visa twice by South African authorities due to pressure from Beijing.
A beacon of democracy and human rights? Or a pragmatic emerging regional power anxious to please everyone, but offend no one?
The new AU chief – a former South African Foreign Affairs minister, will be keen on balancing human rights and democracy with national sovereignty and non-interference. We should also expect some dithering and U-turns on major policy decisions.
Nairobi has already made known its displeasure with South Africa’s 'bulldozing' diplomacy according to the Foreign Affairs assistant minister Richard Onyonka.
He accused Pretoria of “intimidation, armtwisting and threats” saying Dlamini-Zuma’s win has “deeply divided the continent”.
These divisions will intensify should governance and human rights define the agenda of the new AU chief.
It is, however, unlikely that Dlamini-Zuma will have these ideals prominent on her agenda, given South Africa’s indecisiveness and inconsistencies on the world stage on human rights issues during her tenure as Foreign Affairs minister.
She will be pragmatic, she will have to bend over backwards to please everyone, including authoritarian regimes and human rights violators.