Jacob Zuma throws a royal tantrum

2014-10-26 15:00

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President Jacob Zuma has pulled out of a high-level gathering aimed at marketing South Africa to foreign investors after Britain refused to grant him an official audience with Prime Minister David Cameron.

Instead, the British offered Zuma a meeting with Cameron’s deputy, Nick Clegg, which the president refused.

On Friday, the presidency issued a statement saying Zuma “will no longer attend the 3rd annual innovaBRICS conference in London”, which takes place on Monday.

The innovaBRICS & Beyond Conference is meant to promote trade in South Africa and other Brics countries in the UK. It also presents many opportunities for networking.

Zuma would have been there from yesterday until Tuesday.

It is the second time this year Zuma has cancelled a visit to the UK at short notice, something which is not likely to go down well in diplomatic circles.

He was to have attended an official memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Westminster Abbey in February, but cancelled at short notice.

“That did damage and a number of people asked whether he would really come this time,” said a source close to diplomatic circles. “Doing it once was bad enough, but to do it twice? This time he wasn’t invited by Britain though.”

Yesterday, Zuma was still listed on the innovaBRICS website as the keynote speaker of the conference alongside global chairman of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Steve Almond; Standard Chartered chairman Sir John Peace; Tata’s executive director, David Landsman; and the chief economic adviser to the mayor of London, Gerard Lyons. Zuma would have been the only government leader speaking at the event.

On Thursday, a statement from the presidency announced his intention to deliver a keynote address at the conference “outlining South Africa’s role in Brics and on the African continent, in light of South Africa’s National Development Plan and Vision 2063”.

He would also have engaged with “UK business leaders and opinion makers” during his visit, addressed an SA Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Tuesday followed by a lunch lecture at Chatham House, a high-level influential think-tank.

No reason for Zuma’s subsequent withdrawal was given, but a diary issued late on Friday afternoon stated he would be busy with ANC business at Luthuli House tomorrow.

According to officials in London with knowledge of the planned visit, Zuma’s office insisted on meeting Cameron, but due to “diary issues” he was offered a meeting with Clegg instead.

Zuma refused and, even on Friday, there were negotiations with Cameron about clearing a diary slot.

City Press also understands there was a delay from Cameron’s office in getting back to Zuma.

Zuma called off the visit on Friday morning.

“There was a backwards and forwards about this for a couple of days,” said the source. “It was all about protocol. If they didn’t give him an official reception, South Africa would have to pay a hell of a lot for a cavalcade.”

A private or a working visit, like the one Zuma was planning, would have meant he had to organise his own transport and security detail, said an official, although it was not clear if this was the only reason Zuma had cancelled.

Another source with inside knowledge of the conference said: “I gather folks in London are really pissed off. Presidential travel takes a lot of preplanning and advance work.”

However, South African government officials downplayed the cancellation, saying it was protocol for a visiting head of state to meet and greet the head of state of the host country.

“It wouldn’t look right for the president to go and address a conference without speaking to the prime minister,” said a government official.

“The conference is a private thing organised by business. It was an invite the presidency thought should be considered positively, but they were advised it’s a private [and not government] thing, and the presidency does not need to attend it.”

The official said Zuma and Cameron would have a chance to meet on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Australia next month.

South Africa and Zuma will now be represented by Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, who will lead the delegation, Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.

International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was also originally supposed to go, but is leading a Southern African Development Community observer mission to Botswana’s elections.

Zuma’s spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, said the president had cancelled because his diary was rescheduled.

“The president’s diary is subject to change at all times according to requirements,” he said, but would not give details.

Maharaj added that ministers had always attended the conference.

“This year, the four ministers are the strongest delegation we have ever sent,” he said.

Brand SA is one of the key sponsors of the conference and the intention is to attract trade, investment and tourism to South Africa to boost the economy.

Spokesperson for the British High Commission in Pretoria Isabel Potgieter said: “The decision to cancel [Zuma’s] visit is a matter for the South African government.

“We do not comment on security matters,” she added.

Also this week, Cameron landed in the middle of an unprecedented controversy when he hit out at the European Union after the continental body slapped his country with a £1.7?million (R29.9?billion) bill after the UK economy performed better than other European economies since 1995.

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