Zuma’s Banda moment looms

2013-10-27 14:01

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SADC summit starts next week

President Joyce Banda of Malawi and her “brother”, President Jacob Zuma, will come face to face next weekend for the first time after Zuma’s gaffe about that nation’s roads.

Both presidents will attend the ­international conference of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on the Great Lakes Region, set to start next Sunday in Pretoria.

Earlier this week, relations appeared strained as the South African High Commissioner to Malawi, Cassandra Mbuyane-Mokone, was “summoned” to explain Zuma’s remarks to Malawi’s foreign affairs secretary, George Mkondiwa. His office said her explanation was ­sufficient.

City Press travelled to Malawi this week to see for ourselves what the roads there looked like.

The roads are small, two-lane carriageways, but unlike many roads in South Africa, they are not riddled with potholes. However, they do look a bit frayed around their unpaved edges, a possible result of rainwater damage.

The country’s main road, the M1, which leads from Lilongwe to the Kamazu Airport, the commercial capital Blantyre and on to neighbouring Zambia, is comparable to many roads in South African towns.

We caught up with Malawi’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Quent Kalichero, who said his government had “obtained clarification from the (South African) government that the remarks were reported out of context”.

“The actual context they referred to is that the president (Zuma) was talking about roads in South Africa while trying to coerce you people to pay fees so that you can maintain your roads,” Kalichero said.

Speaking in Joburg on Monday, Zuma told his audience: “We can’t think like Africans in Africa, generally; we’re in Johannesburg,” adding that the N1 between Johannesburg and Pretoria was “not some national road in Malawi”.

On Wednesday, Deputy International Relations Minister Marius Fransman met Malawi’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Ephrahim Chiume, during an SADC summit in Lilongwe. On Thursday, he paid a courtesy visit to Banda to patch up relations.

“In no uncertain terms, (President Banda) asked how is my brother in South Africa,” Fransman told City Press yesterday, adding that “both meetings were ... very positive” and that the Malawian government appreciated the “clarification and the engagement”.

“The issue is over and leadership will show that diplomatic relations are intact,” he said.

A highly placed Malawian source said the government was told Zuma’s remarks did not reflect ordinary South Africans’ perception of the continent and Zuma held the people of Malawi in high regard.

Zuma’s gaffe was unlikely to strain relations, said a diplomat, adding that summoning the high commissioner to answer was standard practice.

The South African government has a good relationship with Malawi, having lent them about R350 million last year in June.

But Zuma’s faux pas could cause a backlash from African Union (AU) member states, said associate professor at the University of Malawi and political analyst Blessing Chinsinga.

“This statement coming from him while South Africa is leading the AU will cause other countries not to believe that South Africa is fully committed to the continent,” he said. “It may not affect ­diplomatic relations between South Africa and Malawi, but this is a huge blunder that may have an ­impact on AU member states.

“If it was somebody else other than a head of state, it wouldn’t be as shocking.”

Institute for Policy Interaction executive director Rafiq Hajat said Zuma’s remarks would take time to wear off. “The feelings that have been aroused will not subside so easily and will take a long time to assuage.”

What Malawians say

Although the diplomatic row may now be over, ordinary Malawians are still a bit angry with what President Zuma had to say.

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