/ 27 January 2008

Zuma’s charm offensive in Davos

Jacob Zuma, who survived rape and corruption charges to become the president-in-waiting, has harsh words for Kenya and Nigeria, where recent elections were marred by alleged fraud, violence and disputed results.

”What has happened in Kenya I think is absolutely not right,” Zuma said on Saturday in an interview with the Associated Press. ”It does not help to advance the case for the African continent.”

Of last year’s Nigerian election, won by the governing party and condemned by observers as deeply flawed, he said: ”It’s not a good example if you’ve got the kind of infrastructure or method that allowed that kind of thing.”

He also said he was hopeful for a fair election in Zimbabwe — where on Friday President Robert Mugabe set national elections for March 29 despite opposition calls for more time to prepare and reform — and promised to continue South Africa’s efforts to mediate between Mugabe and the opposition.

Zuma at Davos

That is Zuma at Davos: a man trying to project stability and seriousness and dissolve concerns about his readiness to govern a country that may not have the most people in Africa — that’s Nigeria — but is looked to by millions on the troubled continent for leadership.

It is that special role that magnifies the concerns about Zuma, who unseated President Thabo Mbeki at a party convention in Polokwane of their African National Congress last month — in the first time in 55 years that the party leadership was openly fought.

The victory virtually assured him of being the party’s presidential candidate in elections scheduled in 2009 — if he survives new corruption charges against him.

This week Zuma was one of the most sought-after figures at the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in this Swiss resort — an engaging and enigmatic would-be president.

But can the mantle of the widely revered Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president, really pass to a man who only a few months ago was acquitted of rape charges?

After all, the moral voice of the nation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, urged ANC members not to elect Zuma, pleading that they ”not choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed”.

Zuma brushed off the insult.

”People like Bishop Tutu, a few others, might have their views. I respect him,” he said in the interview. ”My understanding is that clergy people are there to pray [and not] take political stances.”

The first corruption charges against Zuma were thrown out of court in 2005. Soon after, he went on trial for rape, accused by the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend. Zuma argued the encounter was consensual and was acquitted, but not before he made damaging comments that led many to question his judgement — including that he believed taking a shower after the sex would reduce the risk of contracting HIV/Aids.

Zuma linked his rise to the displeasure of many South Africans with Mbeki’s decision to fire him as the nation’s deputy president in 2005.

”Since that time people have felt that some of the things that happened to me were certainly unfair … that there was [an] interfering with Zuma’s human rights.”

Zuma said he still meets with Mbeki and brushed off concerns about dysfunction in the ANC.

”I think what people should actually be saying is, here is an organisation in the African continent that shows the deep roots of democracy in the sense that we have never seen before. They are able to say even to a sitting president: ‘We don’t prefer you now, we prefer this one.”’

”Once a democratic decision is taken I think you’ve got to respect it … I think that’s what we need in Africa.”

Zuma insisted the ANC must decide if he will be the candidate — widely viewed as a formality — but agreed to discuss how he would rule.

‘Current policies will be deepened’

Zuma plans to change little but stress education and more equality. That may disappoint some of his more leftist supporters.

”If anything the current policies will be deepened. We will try to work hard to ensure that we continue the trajectory of economic growth in South Africa.”

Zuma said the country’s rampant crime and corrosive income gaps could not be resolved ”overnight”.

”You are dealing with a situation where the bulk of the population was deliberately deprived education [under apartheid]. If you’re talking about unemployment today the bigger percentage of it is unemployable and therefore that is a breeding ground” for crime.

He also said he would follow Mbeki’s tolerant policy toward Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has presided over political repression and an economic meltdown.

South Africa cannot ”instruct Mugabe” or ”abuse” its economic leverage, Zuma said. Rather, he said, South Africa is quietly mediating a dialogue between the Zimbabwean government and opposition which has ”taken us very far without necessarily talking about it in public”.

Overall, Zuma said, despite the turmoil ”Africa has made a lot of progress”.

”There’s been a debate about the culture of good governance [and] democracy,” he said. African nations have taken a ”very firm position that no military takeover will ever be supported. … Even the economy is beginning to pick up broadly speaking, not fast enough.

”I’m more confident that Africa in the next two decades or so will be a different kind of place.”

Backing for Manuel

Meanwhile, Zuma has given his backing to Finance Minister Trevor Manuel — a man hated by some of Zuma’s political allies for overseeing the economic policies that they strongly oppose, the Business Times reported on Sunday.

”It’s important that key people at such an important global gathering know that I have full confidence in Trevor Manuel. I think he has handled the finances of the country very well.”

”And I am also here saying that people should once again be reassured that the ANC’s new leadership is not going to change the party’s economic policies — there should be no apprehension.”

But Zuma spoke even as he continued to clear out Cabinet ministers from senior posts in Parliament and the ANC.

This week, Manuel was struck from the ANC’s top leadership structure in Parliament, the political committee that oversees the ANC’s work in the legislature.

Manuel was also among Mbeki’s Cabinet ministers removed from the ANC’s national working committee.

Manuel is closely associated with the relatively conservative fiscal policies that have resulted in the National Treasury keeping tight control on spending on social and economic development programmes since 1996.

He admitted being weary of ”questions about the ANC’s proven economic policies, and worries about an individual changing things. In reality, you have a collective making decisions within the safeguards of a Constitution.

”It’s actually surprising that people have not realised how the ANC has crafted policies; that, in fact, you cannot have an individual that holds the wrong policies; it’s the ANC which crafts them.”

He also noted: ”The fact that the international community at such an important gathering as this is questioning the ANC indicates the relevance of the ANC in the world today, and in the fight against poverty.”

Zuma insisted he was at Davos to ”listen and learn”, the newspaper said.

He said that signals from Davos had further convinced him that SA would need to move away from a reliance on domestic spending and commodity exports as demand from China and India ”cannot last forever”.

He said SA should accelerate the manufacture of value-added exports: ”We need to mix activities so we grow exports sustainably.”

After Davos, Zuma plans to stop off in Zurich, Switzerland, to meet international investors. – Sapa, Sapa-AP