Zuma has a speed wobble??

2013-10-28 10:00

Were President Jacob Zuma’s remarks about African infrastructure the end of the road for his pothole politics? Carien du Plessis dissects the controversy and discovers that Number 1’s international diplomacy is at a crossroads

The president’s road to African hell was paved with good intentions. Persuading a rather tough middle class audience of professionals and academics at an ANC event about the benefits of coughing up for not-so-free freeways was always going to amount to a presidential comedy routine.

He cranked the gags out, one after the other. Justifying the Gauteng e-tolling system versus a countrywide fuel levy, the president said Joburg must develop, and the locals must pay.

It was not like Rustenburg or Pietermaritzburg (which both, incidentally, can be reached by toll roads) or any of the other backwaters that rolled off his tongue.

The audience laughed, initially out of shock, and perhaps some of the more parochially minded members laughed with him.

Zuma was so taken by it that he added to the growing number of punch lines: “You must not think like an African in Africa.” For a moment he paused, seemingly experiencing a speed wobble, and then added “generally”.

The diplomacy-killing line followed: “This is Johannesburg. It is not some national road in Malawi.”

By this time, the audience laughed out of embarrassment and Zuma must have known this.

He had presumably added the “generally” as if to say there was an “in particular” somewhere too, as in “blacks in general and Africans in particular”.

Perhaps his grip on the reality of what he said slipped at this point, in Freudian fashion.

Perhaps he meant it to be self-deprecating, in the same way that black people would refer to other black people as “niggas” or “darkies”. But this mostly only works on a public platform if you’re a rapper or a kwaito star.

Which brings us to the politics of potholes. Zuma must know well that South Africa’s infrastructure is envied by many on the rest of the continent, so much so that they call us the “Europe of Africa”.

Back home, government is sensitive to complaints about potholes. ANC politicians often feel this is a subtext for (white) people saying black people can’t govern well enough to keep the infrastructure from going to pot.

And in referring to Malawi, that was pretty much Zuma’s subtext (if you substitute “Africans” for “blacks”).

Up to this point, things were going well for him out there. He was cruising the high roads of international diplomacy, with the ridicule surrounding his polygamous lifestyle for once on the back burner.

This week, he is off on an official trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to, among other things, check on peacekeeping efforts there.

It’s well-known that the roads in that country are so bad that flying is the preferred mode of long-distance travel. Say no more.

Or worse, next month Malawi President Joyce Banda is scheduled to come to South Africa for an investor-wooing trip.

What will he say to her if they meet up?

A little earlier this month, Zuma’s efforts to find a way out of Kenya’s International Criminal Court (ICC) conundrum got a mention at a press conference after the African Union (AU) special summit on this.

Msholozi even got to meet with the man of the moment, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, before the summit to tell him why South Africa would not support a withdrawal from the ICC.

But will the AU trust him should they reconvene this summit next month if they have no luck in persuading the UN Security Council that sitting heads of state must not be prosecuted in international courts?

Perhaps they will now be suspicious that he will side with the Europeans, who want the ICC to retain legitimacy.

At the G20 summit last month, the host, Russia President Vladimir Putin, spoke highly of the way Zuma came out as the big man for the small countries during discussions on Syria.

The view of Russia and its allies prevailed at the summit and the ANC painted this as a small triumph for Zuma on the international stage.

At the UN special assembly soon after, the South African delegation threw the coolest parties (according to at least one journalist’s blog), with Zuma at the heart of these.

It was as if he had finally started to outlive the horrid years of that bunch of youngsters telling him he knew nothing about foreign policy after the fiasco of Nato’s Libyan intervention.

Even the military disaster in the Central African Republic earlier this year, when 14 South African soldiers were killed in an ambush (doing we don’t know exactly what in the country), was beginning to fade somewhat in the national memory.

Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj’s initial efforts to spin Zuma out of the mud this week hit a snag. Nobody took his word over the sound clips of Zuma’s recorded words, which were either broadcast or posted online.

By Thursday, Maharaj simply apologised after apparently receiving angry phone calls from the Malawians.

It reminded me of the time, about two years ago, when then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema threatened to bring about regime change in Botswana.

The ANC had to stop him in his tracks and patch up diplomatic relations by issuing persuasive statements.

Zuma’s remarks this week are part of what will be a long campaign ahead of the 2014 polls. Doubtless, the guy from Nxamalala will find himself walking up the one-way street of parochialism again.

But perhaps it would be best if he takes a detour around African thoughts.

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