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Problems at home for Jacob Zuma

2010 March 5
by Paul Vallely

Abroad is a very useful place for politicians. It is a place to go when the burden of daily events at home become just too wearing – which is presumably why Jacob Zuma sighed with relief when he landed in London his week. Here the South African president could tread the world stage as an international statesman talking about trade, climate change, Zimbabwe and musing on whether the Commonwealth might be a useful vehicle through which to press for the reform of multilateral bodies like the UN, IMF and World Bank to make them more sensitive to the needs of developing countries.

It was possible to portray Mr Zuma in another way, as the blustering basso buffo protagonist in an African comic opera. He is, after all, the man who went to Davos recently and launched a robust defence of polygamy, arguing that the Zulu cultural practice of marrying more than one wife was preferable to the tendency of Western politicians to restrict themselves to just the one at a time, but have clandestine affairs on the side.

But then, a fortnight ago, it was revealed that the man who has been married five times and has a score of children has fathered another child out of wedlock. The mother is the daughter of the man who is president of South Africa’s World Cup organising committee and a close friend of Mr Zuma. The news broke just as South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, was preparing to launch a new campaign against Aids which stressed the need for faithfulness to one partner.

The outcry from anti-Aids campaigners was immense. This was far from Mr Zuma’s first offence. In 2005 he was tried for rape after admitting he had unprotected sex with a woman with HIV – the daughter of a deceased ANC comrade of Mr Zuma – and then bizarrely claimed in court that he had taken a shower immediately afterwards to “cut the risk of contracting HIV”. The furore then and now among health experts and Aids activists was such that the Mr Zuma was in recent days forced to issue a statement saying he “deeply regretted the pain that he caused to his family, the ANC, the alliance and South Africans in general”. There can be no doubt that the whole business has seriously weakened the president’s authority.

This matters because the coalition of support on which he depends was already showing signs of falling apart. On the one hand Mr Zuma has appointed a steady hand on the macro-economic tiller to succeed South Africa’s longstanding finance minister, Trevor Manuel whose cautious approach has delivered sustained economic growth over the past decade. The new man Pravin Gordhan gave his first budget speech last week without frightening off international investors. On the other hand the Left accuse him of not doing enough to provide new jobs and homes for the poor. The nation’s trade unions issued a statement condemning the budget and the firebrand leader of the ANC’s youth movement, Julius Malema, keeps demanding the nationalisation of South Africa’s mines. Mr Zuma routinely says all things to all men in an attempt to keep his faltering coalition together.

In many ways Mr Zuma, for all his reputation as a populist demagogue in the run-up to his election, has behaved since he became president with remarkable canniness. He has consolidated diplomatic relations with Brazil and India and other emerging nations. He is embracing deals with China as an equal partner without the baggage of Africa’s old former colonial partners. He played a serious role at the Copenhagen climate change conference.

But all that will count for little when he gets back home to deepening divisions in the ANC. His latest sexual shenanigans have only added to those divisions. Being abroad has offered him a short respite. But now he has to go home and face up to it all.


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