Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a veteran of the fight against apartheid who has served in the cabinet of every South African president since Nelson Mandela, now takes the top African Union job.
Elected by the 54-member pan-African bloc in Ethiopia on Sunday, she becomes the first woman to head the AU Commission.
An experienced diplomat, Dlamini-Zuma, 63, is known for her competent management and stern personality.
A doctor by training, she was health minister when Mandela became the country’s first black leader.
She went on to be foreign minister for a decade, earning praise for her shuttle diplomacy to end the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But her critics found fault with her “quiet diplomacy” towards neighbour Zimbabwe, during a crisis that saw President Robert Mugabe evict thousands of white farmers from their land in 2000.
Her former husband President Jacob Zuma named her interior minister.
Although that was seen as a demotion, she won plaudits for turning around a ministry mired in gross mismanagement to achieve the first clean audit in 16 years.
In her campaign to win the pan-African bloc’s top job, she vowed to work at making it “a more efficient and effective organisation.”
And while she may have defeated the incumbent, French-speaker Jean Ping of Gabon, she has refused to be labelled as an English-speaking candidate.
“I am not Anglophone, I’m Zulu,” she said.
Once she got to work in the post, she added, she would be “implementing programmes… agreed upon by everybody” rather than “consulting the Anglophone and the Francophone.”
Dlamini-Zuma has the backing of the predominantly English-speaking southern African region and is the first person from the region to hold the top Commission job since the AU was created a decade ago.
“She takes her work very seriously,” said Prince Mashele, an analyst at the Centre for Politics and Research, who worked with Dlamini-Zuma’s ministry when she was foreign minister.
“She has the rare quality of putting up very good administrators,” Mashele added.
But she has raised eyebrows with her unsmiling demeanour.
“I thought she could do better if she was a little more affable,” said Mashele.
Born January 27, 1949, in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, Dlamini-Zuma took up politics in high school.