Editorial: Nasty notion that the prez is for sale

Jacob Zuma meets then-leader of Libya Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli, May 2011.

Jacob Zuma meets then-leader of Libya Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli, May 2011.

In politics, perception matters; sometimes enough to significantly sway global events. And President Jacob Zuma has a perception problem.

Though rumour came thick and fast in 2011 and since, nobody ever provided proof that Zuma accepted money from Muammar Gaddafi and later returned the favour by trying to keep Gaddafi in power. Nor, it seems, was any such proof provided to then United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton when she was fed the same rumour from “Western intelligence” by way of a trusted adviser, as we reveal this week.

Despite that lack of proof, Clinton’s adviser gave it credence. Likewise, rebels in Libya accepted it as fact, preventing Zuma from succeeding as an African Union mediator between those rebels and Gaddafi. It would be a stretch to blame that alone for the failure of AU mediation efforts in Libya in 2011 – Zuma was only part of the whole – but it certainly played a role.

In much the same way there will still be some who believe that Zuma’s campaign to unseat Thabo Mbeki was funded by Angolan leader José Eduardo dos Santos, because he considered Mbeki trouble. A primary source for those allegations, the Browse Mole Report, has been thoroughly discredited, yet that bit of dirt still sticks.

The problem for Zuma, and by extension South Africa, is that our president so often appears to be for sale. Over the years this newspaper has documented the close relationship between the Zuma and Gupta families, and the benefits derived by each. We have reported on the system of neo-patronage established under Zuma, in which access to resources is swapped for political power. We know that Zuma accepted millions from Schabir Shaik and hundreds of thousands of rands from other people in business with the state.

And of course there is the state’s largesse in the form of Nkandla, which Zuma accepted and shows absolutely no intention to repay.

So if the US’s top diplomat is confidently told that this man accepted money from Gaddafi, would she have reason to doubt that assertion? Would it be possible to convince rebel leaders that they should work with Zuma, not distrust him utterly? Would other African countries have at least a glimmer of suspicion when dealing with South Africa on matters involving Angola?

Unless things change in the next 10 months – and that is, admittedly, a long time in politics – Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the US. She will have things other than South Africa on her mind, most notably the Middle East. But in her dealings with South Africa there will always be some unease. Zuma, likewise, cannot help but be aware of how she perceives him.

That they are both too good as diplomats to let their masks slip will not matter. Trust is hard won and easily shattered – and the perception that Zuma is for sale will continue to influence local and world events.



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