Last week a senior South African ANC politician managed to break through the media radar screens in Washington DC. Given the intense attention, and corresponding coverage which the US presidential election and the simultaneous and ongoing financial crisis enjoy, this was no mean feat.
Unfortunately, perhaps for him, his Party and the country, the politician in question was the Chairperson of Parliament’s Finance Committee the accident-prone Nhlanhla Nene. His fifteen seconds of infamy when he fell through the chair in the SABC TV studio ensured him primetime place on at least one cable TV news network – MSNBC (and more than 36 000 hits on YouTube, where viewers gave his performance a 5-star rating.) Jacob Zuma, who was in Washington last week, received far less coverage.
To be fair to the ANC President, his visit was designed to calm the waters – and uncertainties relating to his presumptive State Presidency – rather than to make waves. In this regard he went to considerable lengths before his major Washington audience at the Council on Foreign Relations to indicate that there would be “no change” of broad economic policy and political direction under his leadership.
He claimed, for example, that his allegiance – and indebtedness – to the forces on the ANC left, particularly the SA Communist Party and COSATU, was no greater or more significant than that of his two predecessors, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. He also managed, or attempted, to pivot his leadership away from the flagship issues of AIDS and Zimbabwe which has made Mbeki, and through him South Africa, a figure of some notoriety and certain unpopularity in Washington. He dismissed the Mbeki-Manto Tshabalala-Msimang AIDS denialist regime as one characterised by their “personal opinions”, at variance with mainstream ANC policy, now being corrected. On our benighted northern neighbour, Zuma gave a tepid endorsement of “quiet diplomacy” but robustly denounced Robert Mugabe’s refusal to grant Morgan Tsvangirai a passport.
Zuma was, by all accounts, well received by the soon-to-exit Bush administration at the White House. But perhaps his visit there, meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and even a quick grip-and-grin session with President George W Bush underlined the ambivalence of his reception. On the one hand, Zuma is, in effect, if not in formal office yet, the most powerful politician in South Africa. We are, beyond argument, the most important country in Africa. Even Bush’s detractors regard his Africa policy – particularly the PEPFAR AIDS-fighting fund and the Millennium Challenge Account as his “finest hour” (to quote no less an adversary than Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden). Therefore, Zumas’ clout ensures him access. On the other hand, the notoriety which the unresolved criminal corruption charges have attached to his name ensured that the White House cancelled a photo opportunity of his visit.
Zuma was hardly evasive on his legal challenges. With a degree of mind-numbing detail which probably bewildered, in its labyrinthine complexity, the Washington grandees and old Africa hands listening to his address at the Council on Foreign Relations, Zuma painted himself as the innocent victim of a political conspiracy. And I suppose, if you are to press such a charge, Washington is the ideal place to do it. He described his case as “a very obvious political manipulation” and he had no qualms in fingering Mbeki, and former Director of the National Prosecuting Authority, Bulelani Ngcuka, and ex-Justice Minister Penuel Maduna as the guilty parties.
The complex detail which Zuma provided around his legal travails stood in sharp relief to his vague bromides around South Africa’s economic challenges and the massive downturn in overseas investor confidence towards our country and other developing economies. On the very day that Zuma was suggesting to his American audience that they should “invest more in South Africa”, the New York Times published a list of the currencies of emerging markets countries that have fallen against the US Dollar over the last three months. The South African Rand ranked second from the bottom of the world’s worst performers, beating only the Icelandic Krona (we dropped 31.38% compared to Iceland’s 31.78%). Unhappily, Iceland has declared national bankruptcy. Yet, the run on the Rand and the vertiginous decline in commodity prices – barely preoccupied Zuma. Or at least, his answers evinced little fresh or reassuring thinking on the subject. He simply repeated the mantra that “the ANC has good policies” and announced that even the President of the Party – or the country for that matter – was unable to change them.
I spoke to a key Wall Street investor (or more accurately, one of the few still left standing) who attended a smaller Zuma event at the Harvard Club in New York. He said the ANC President displayed more charm than substance and did not present a persuasive case for investment or, given the latest portfolio reversal out of the JSE, reinvestment. “On the other hand”, he said, “he was neither frightening nor arrogant.”
My impression of Zuma in Washington was similar. I was struck by how he reached out to me, seated in the audience, and described the government and South Africa’s parliamentary opposition, as partners in South Africa’s democracy, in a manner that Thabo Mbeki never countenanced. This strongly suggested, to an audience containing many Africa-sceptics, that our democratic gains are less reversible than the fluctuating fortunes of our currency.
* Written for the Independent Newspapers in South Africa - submitted 29 October 2008.