Africa’s options

2009-06-17 00:00

THREE days at the African summit of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Cape Town made me realise that our country, the continent and the world are wrestling with issues of enormous magnitude and complexity. Issues that are truly a matter of life and death.

The WEF was President Jacob Zuma’s first appointment with the international community, an opportunity for him to showcase South Africa to the world, as it were, and give an indication of the direction in which he intends steering the country — locally, on the rest of the continent and globally.

It was an appearance that left one with mixed feelings. Perhaps even with a degree of concern about the the president’s grasp of the complex economic challenges in an unstable global environment.

I suspect Zuma would be the first to admit that the details and nuances of economic policy are not his strong point — he is no Trevor Manuel.

In his prepared speech to open proceedings, Zuma did not fare at all badly. But there was no spark of inspiration. It was essentially the delivery of a succession of paragraphs knocked together by technocrats.

However, it was during the question-and-answer session that the president came across as tentative and even clumsy. While he did not embarrass himself he certainly did not create the impression of being able to converse with the best of them when it came to the vagaries of international economics, as could his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. That was the feeling left by Zuma and what delegates speculated on over coffee afterwards.

If the president is no fundi in his own right when it comes to international and global economic issues, neither is he particularly fluent when it comes to delivering other people’s speeches. At the WEF he was only a fraction less stilted than during the State of the Nation address. Contrast that with what I saw on TV the other evening when the president was addressing his supporters at a celebration of his recent political victories. Off the cuff in Zulu. A completely different Zuma. Enigmatic and charismatic. No nerves. No involuntary licking of the lips. Strong and full of confidence. An inspiration to his followers.

It is important for Zuma’s spin doctors to capture something of this magic and make it a part of his official presidential persona.

Nonetheless, Zuma did push the right buttons in his opening address when it came to the developing world’s expectations that the developed world get the world out of the financial mess into which it has plunged us.

The message was clear: “You caused it, you have to help sort it out. But under no circumstances will it be entrusted to you alone. Nor will the future management of the global economy and the multilateral institutions undergirding it.” But he said it very matter-of-factly, and for a moment one wished he had done it with the chutzpah of a Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, or even Venezuela’s militant Hugo Chávez.

Be that as it may, Zuma set the tone and atmosphere for the remaining three days’ consultations among leaders of the continent, ministers, officials, trade unions, NGOs and all manner of policy bookworms.

Three themes ran through all the discussions like a golden thread as beacons for Africa’s growth and development: clean government, an emphasis on education and training, and the establishment of infrastructure across the entire spectrum of economic activity, whether in telecommunications, health, transport, or basic services like clean water and sanitation. Africa’s challenges in each of the three themes are legion. Signs of progress are present here and there, but the continent still has a long way to go. There was no shortage of ideas or even of passion. But the global financial crisis hung like a wet blanket over proceedings and is set to hamper future progress.

And yet there was a prevailing spirit of each setback presenting its own opportunities. That is what we have to focus on – rather than just whingeing. After all, this is all about the life (or death) of millions of people. May this spirit inspire the entire continent.

• Henry Jeffreys is the editor of Die Burger.

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