Diplomats and foreign correspondents who spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week said Jacob Zuma’s presidency was proving a pleasant surprise, rather than the nightmare they had feared.
Fears about Zuma’s perceived disdain for the rule of law were heightened by the dropping of corruption charges against him shortly before the April elections.
There were also fears that he would reward his supporters with government jobs, move sharply to the left in his Cabinet appointments and limit international engagements to tea with unsavoury characters for whom human rights and mineral rights were interchangeable.
“What we knew of him [before the elections] was that he had several wives, was on trial for rape and corruption, and not much more,” one Western diplomat told the M&G.
As Zuma has met world leaders at multilateral gatherings, including the G8, he has gained international goodwill.
“He has exceeded expectations and negative perceptions,” said another European diplomat. “It was a start that was better than expected.”
Zuma met United States president Barack Obama in L’Aquila in Italy in July during the G8 summit, impressing the Americans and leaving them keen to work with him.
His first set of appointments, including those of Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus and nominated Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, have largely emphasised merit over political loyalty and set international observers at ease.
But it might not be so easy for Zuma to shake off his past.
“The Sword of Damocles of prosecution has been over his head and will always follow him, but it does not feature much at the moment,” said one diplomat. “Now we want to see how well he can run a country.”
Tom Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said evidence had been provided to suggest that Zuma had been targeted by Thabo Mbeki and this had helped shake off some of his negative image.
Even foreign correspondents said their briefs about Zuma have shifted since he became president. “We are not writing about him as a criminal any more; there’s more focus on what he’ll do as a president,” said one American correspondent.
Diplomats are also finding that the change in governing style has filtered down to the department of international relations and cooperation, which has been far more accessible than it was under Mbeki’s administration.
“The new minister [Maite Nkoana-Mashabane] has made herself more available. She met the diplomatic corps shortly after her appointment,” said one.
“Zuma’s reappointment of [director general Ayanda] Ntsaluba was also a good thing, as was his call for the release of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.” Wheeler said that thus far Zuma had not put a foot wrong — but this might not last indefinitely.
“There are hard decisions to be made and then his honeymoon will be over. Remember that for Obama it lasted only six months,” he said.