Zuma's missed opportunity to sell South Africa

South African President Jacob Zuma sitting in front  of a portrait of late African National Congress (ANC) President Oliver Reginald Tambo, during a briefing with the South African Foreign Correspondents Association in Johannesburg  - 29 October 2012

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This was, surely, a moment for some salesmanship.

After the most damaging months that South Africa's economy has experienced in two decades - with foreign investment and confidence shrinking alarmingly (and perhaps excessively) following the Marikana killings and subsequent industrial unrest - President Jacob Zuma had come to address the world's media at a televised breakfast meeting in Johannesburg.

Mr Zuma walked into a room bristling - if that is possible - with silence and scepticism.

Perhaps we should draw a polite curtain over the president's opening remarks.

Mr Zuma has always struggled to deliver written speeches - excusable perhaps given that English is his second language, and his education was curtailed by the fight against apartheid - but the dreary listing of the African National Congress's achievements since 1994 and a handful of bland generalisations about industrial relations hardly seemed calibrated for the occasion.

An opportunity to generate some positive headlines abroad was sleepily squandered.

Tipping point?

Then came the more feisty question-and-answer session.

But again, rather than selling his vision of the way forward for South Africa, Mr Zuma chose to focus almost exclusively on his trademark tactic - wounded defensiveness.

Those who were criticising South Africa, were simply misunderstanding it: The "mishap of Marikana" was a "surprise to everyone", he said, but it did not represent a "tipping point" for the country - coming close to contradicting his vice-president and rival Kgalema Motlanthe - and it is "wrong to exaggerate" or call the situation "a crisis".

Striking miners chant slogans as they gather at the AngloGold Ashanti mine in Carletonville, northwest of Johannesburg, 25 October 2012 It is strike season in South Africa

Strikes, he pointed out quite reasonably, were a by-product of democracy.

As for the corruption and infighting within the ruling ANC, Mr Zuma again suggested that outsiders were missing the point.

His administration had done more than any other to fight corruption, and the infighting was a healthy sign of the ANC's democratic processes at work.

In the past, Mr Zuma has urged the public to stop blaming the legacy of apartheid for all of modern South Africa's ills.

But today he seemed to begin most answers with a history lesson and a plea for his country's special status.

Start Quote

You cannot change direction overnight - it's like the Titanic”

End Quote Jacob Zuma South Africa's president

Overall it was an unsurprisingly uninspiring performance - defensive, short on details or any new policy initiatives; the performance, you might say, of a chairman rather than a leader.

But Mr Zuma's central point - that South Africa is not in a state of crisis - has a certain inconvenient truth to it.

I say "inconvenient" truth because, like the old story about the frog in the pot of water that does not notice he is in danger, South Africa seems to have learned to live with its problems - an unwieldy political alliance between the ANC, trade unions and the Communist Party, massive corruption, a collapsing education system, inequality, a shrinking tax base and expanding welfare system and some of the most protective labour laws in the world.

And so, instead of being confronted with a sudden crisis that prompts real change, South Africa appears to be drifting - sustained by an expanding middle class and buoyant local economy - while the water in the pot keeps getting steadily hotter.

I am not a pessimist.

South Africa remains an extraordinary country with huge mineral reserves, a history of proving the sceptics wrong, plenty of achievements to boast of, and the potential to transform itself.

But it is hard to live here and not feel the keen absence of a charismatic leader - someone to pull the country behind him, or her.

Perhaps it is worth ending with what sounded like a presidential Freudian slip, as Mr Zuma was chatting to journalists after his main remarks.

South Africa's government was an unwieldy ship to steer, he suggested, "You cannot change direction overnight. It's like the Titanic."

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    There is deep national disquiet over President Zuma’s failing leadership, this disquiet resonates across the entire spectrum of South Africa’s body of public opinions, including from within the ANC, that shared view is a rare thing in SA i.e. a national consensus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    At 13.Celes: As a young South African there are few things that irratate me more than when people still put down complicated political problems in my country to racism. The Marikana massacre wasnt due to people in shopping malls not wanting to walk around with each other. It happened because the elites who rose to political power do not care for their public, only for themselves!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Really sorry for SA. I was there in 2008 and when circulating out in the streets I could see the segregation working not so silently. I went to have lunch at the big mall downtown Joannesburg. It was funny just to see blacks and whites walking completely separeted from one another. Just a few groups were formed by the two races. One could feel the tension in the air.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Zuma became ANC president not because of any leadership skills. He was elected to remove Thabo Mbeki & punish Mbeki for his dogmatic leadership. In the run-up to ANC's Polokwane Conference, most of the focus among Zuma's supporters was to keep him out of jail. Support campaign during his trials = presidential campaign & changing the ANC from sheep it had become under Mbeki.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The problem is that Zuma doesn't do anything unless forced, and then he does what is best for him. This lack of leadership has meant no progress anywhere since 2009. No new developments, any in progress when he was elected are running down.
    His administration is totally dedicated to survival: selective prosecutions for corruption, placing loyal cadres in all positions of power, no other action.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    actual it will be hard to this country to be developed,if people of this country they don't change their way of thinking.they must be objective cause they suppose to choose a right person to lead the country not a lovely person to lead the country

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    actual in this country it will take more time to be a developed country cause people of this nation mostly they are not objectively.they just choose a person because they like him or her.and there are other who are very intelligent they use that chance to fulfill their needs and control that person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I think South Africa may be falling apart under the governance of Jacob Zuma. Some infrastructure is in a state of disrepair . . and getting worse. The poor are getting poorer while President Zuma and his cronies are becoming wealthy. White professionals and managers . . Afrikaans and Europeans . . are leaving the country because of the violence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Thanks Andrew, this is a great article. Although I no longer live in South Africa I do still love the country.. We have had some incredible moments as a nation-some have been terrible, some beautiful. Times are tough now and the situation does look bleak, but let's keep faith in South Africa and do whatever we can to help stop her from sinking. As you note, the potential is there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This guy is not President material, he's a herd boy and should have stuck to what he know. Educated people, no matter what color, must run this country and jail those thieves and not share with them. But, the country will get the government they vote for- liberation movement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    It looks like to me that South Africa is not doing bad. They have not progressed as people of the World thought they will at the end of White rule. Corruption is rampant and they should do more for ordinary people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I have visited SA for 3-5 weeks pa since 1993 and can say that everything is declining. The roads, schools, hospitals and even general civility are declining. To call SA the "rainbow nation" is a joke. The separation of the races (outside Santon and Cape Town) is greater now than at the end of apartheid. Corruption is rampant, especially at a political level and ANC is failing all ordinary people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Criticism has othing to do with his colour, he simply is not qualified for his role and reflects a climate that enabled a this foolish man to run a country, simply because he is Black and African. Surely SA has one of the best infrastructures of any nation in the world, vast areas,coast, business nous, sporting excellence...let´s work on that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I have thought that the media in SA is almost waiting for the ANC to fail. The media is very partisan & plays a political agenda in support of thier fellow white fellows (DA)
    Take for instance the run up to Mangaung. It has been potrayed as a massive fight. Compare that with Obama and Clinton slugfest?



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