If Dlamini-Zuma had it her way, she would be president and not a Cabinet minister.
A veteran in government since 1994, Dlamini-Zuma is respected as a capable technocrat who likes to get things done.
As health minister from 1994 to 1999, she oversaw the overhaul of the public health sector, from a system that benefited only a few to one catering for the majority of South Africans. (It’s now on life support, but still, it’s breathing.)
She then became the country’s chief diplomat for a decade, serving as the minister of foreign affairs under former president Thabo Mbeki.
But her greatest achievement was possibly the turnaround of the home affairs department, where she was minister from 2009 to 2012. From an inefficient bureaucracy to a relatively well-run organisation (for locals at least), Dlamini-Zuma tightened accounting controls and implemented systems to fast track the issuing of documents.
That task might now seem relatively simple compared with her current portfolio.
In the co-operative governance and traditional affairs ministry, Dlamini-Zuma inherited a department in the grips of financial mismanagement. In the 2017-2018 financial year, the co-operative governance division received an audit disclaimer.
The provinces and municipalities she oversees are also in a dire state. Crucial infrastructure is generally not maintained. Corruption taints many contracts and tenders, sometimes resulting in infrastructure not being provided. In metropolitan municipalities, contestation for power often results in decisions being deferred, or plans are shelved mid-implementation. In smaller, defaulting municipalities, Dlamini-Zuma has a tough job of trying to get them to pay their outstanding bills to Eskom and water boards.
Opposition parties say the minister has not dealt decisively with problems such as these, squandering precious time. She has, for example, been criticised for not setting up a task team to deal with the municipal billing crisis. Her stock response during parliamentary question time is that it is up to the provincial and local government departments to intervene.
That is all well and good, but what happens if provincial governments are also dysfunctional, as in the North West and the Free State?
Deferring decisions is a problem when entities that are owed money say they are going to disconnect services.
Dlamini-Zuma did not create these problems, but there appears to be little clarity, coherence and sense of urgency in how her department works.
She may also be hamstrung by the political considerations of the ANC.
If she stands with municipalities in their plea with Eskom and water boards not to cut services, she could further entrench a culture of non-payment that her government colleagues, especially in the public enterprises and water departments, are trying to overcome.
If she sides with the state-owned utility companies and services are cut, it could spell bad news for her political party in the municipal elections in 2021.
Local government experts say an interventionist strategy of putting troubled municipalities and provinces under administration is not an answer. A starting point, they say, would be in Dlamini-Zuma implementing an early warning system so her department knows when things in provinces and municipalities are going wrong.
Her task is herculean. It might not even be possible, given the near collapse of many local government entities and endemic corruption. But this is her job and she has to act decisively.