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 Image copyright Reuters

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".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption 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.

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."

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