What Merkel may really think of Zuma

The best of friends? German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Jacob Zuma at an official welcoming ceremony in Berlin. (John MacDougall, AFP)
The best of friends? German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Jacob Zuma at an official welcoming ceremony in Berlin. (John MacDougall, AFP)

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s state visit to Germany is undoubtedly an important one, if not quite for the reasons advanced by the South African government’s spin doctors.

Yes, as both Zuma and German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged in their press conference in Berlin on Tuesday, Germany is a very important trade partner for South Africa – in fact, one of the biggest. And about 600 German firms have a presence in South Africa, sustaining more than 100 000 jobs in the country.

A large contingent of South African business leaders went along, and this will no doubt do much to improve economic relations.

Germany and South Africa are also close defence partners, the Germans having supplied just about all major ships in the South African Navy. Major exercises between the two navies are regularly held off the South African coast, with both air forces participating as well.

Photographs appearing in South African newspapers on Wednesday morning showed Zuma and Merkel holding hands like old friends. And in her remarks during the press conference, Merkel praised South Africa as “an important country on the African continent” and called the bilateral relations “good”.

However, knowing the European and German political scene well, appearances deceive.

Questions at press conference ignored Zuma

First of all, just about all questions at the press conference ignored Zuma and the South African visit. Instead, the reporters present peppered Merkel with queries about the refugee crisis, about UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s conditions for staying in the European Union – in short, about themes that really interest Europeans.

South Africa? Far away. Marginally interesting.

Secondly, the smile on Merkel's face and her friendly words are not really felt in her heart. After all, Zuma is a man who stands for everything she – with her devout Christian heritage, and having been brought up in a depressing Communist dictatorship – detests.

Zuma, after all, is a man whose personal lifestyle is doubtful, who has several corruption allegations hanging over his head, who blames the West for the refugee crisis, who uses the South African Air Force as his personal shuttle service, who says the interests of the ANC are more important than South Africa’s. Etcetera, and so on.

She also cannot have been pleased by South Africa’s continuing preference for dictatorships like China and especially Russia, which she sees as a threat.

One has to understand that Merkel reasons like a trained physicist (she has a PhD in physics). In other words, she turns her emotions off and approaches a problem rationally.

For instance, as far as the refugee crisis is concerned, she – as the British news magazine The Economist recently wrote – hasn’t made history; the refugees did. She merely acknowledged the making of that history. After all, the refugees are coming, like a river overflowing, whether you like it or not.

This is the reason why she went on a special visit to Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdogan, another overbearing, arrogant and authoritarian man she severely dislikes. But Turkey’s cooperation is necessary to stem the flow of refugees. So she stifled her own feelings, put a smile on her face and made soothing noises about how valuable and important Erdogan is.

She does the same thing with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whom she regularly phones to keep communication channels open. Exactly the same as she did with Zuma.

South Africa is, as she said, one of the most important countries on the African continent. The present ANC government inherited a well-developed physical and financial infrastructure from the previous one, which makes our country an excellent gateway into Africa south of the equator.

Being positioned astride the Cape sea route, an important trade route between East Asia and Europe for the growing number of ships too large to transit the Suez Canal, makes South Africa strategically important as well. This is reflected by the large number of naval visits – including from German warships – to South African shores.

No fancy presidential plane, no lavish homestead

There is, of course, much that South Africa can learn from Germany. One is that Merkel shares an aircraft with all her government colleagues, and that while she has a relatively modest personal home outside Berlin, she pays for it herself.

But South Africans might also take cognisance of German work ethics, frugality and honesty, of a democratic political culture. Of a government coalition consisting of natural opponents – the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – because they are able to reconcile party interest and national interest. Of a government scrupulously refraining from attacking press freedom and the independence of the courts, even though these are frequently experienced as irksome.

Above all, South Africans might learn how to create an efficient state apparatus which, while not perfect, serves the people reasonably well.

Alas, one asks oneself whether President Zuma is still able to learn anything which does not immediately further his own personal interest. My suspicion is that the answer would be no.

Any thoughts on this? Share your opinion and you could get published.

Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.

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