‘SA in good health’
Cape Town – Jacob Zuma is sucking on an orange to counter a dose of summer flu when the Financial Times visits him in the white-washed old colonial Presidential offices in Cape Town.
“I am following my grandmother’s advice,” the herdboy-turned-activist-turned-President says with his trademark chuckle.
His informal welcome is vintage Zuma. For decades he deployed his easy charm to rise through the suspicious ranks of the African National Congress, first in exile under apartheid and then through government – and past controversy – to become President.
But four troubled years into office, that veneer has lost its lustre. It is hard not to see his ill-health as a metaphor for the difficulties facing his government as he tries to restore business confidence in the wake of a disastrous six months for South Africa’s image.
The killings at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine last August, when police shot dead dozens of striking miners, were merely the most awful event in a series of protests that saw over 100 000 miners sucked into acrimonious strikes.
The strikes underscored corporate concerns about the nation’s fractious labour relations and the decline of its once-mighty mining sector.
Zuma dismisses comparisons made by international commentators between Marikana and apartheid crackdowns. People thought after Marikana that “South Africa was such a bad place”, he said. “It’s not. As an investor I would say this is a country to invest in, because you have a democracy and a system in which even if there are mistakes, they can immediately be corrected.”
But the President makes minimal concession to the concerns of mining companies. In the past few years, mining executives have become exasperated at the mixed messages from the ruling ANC over mining policy and have also accused officials of muddle and inefficiency over issuing mining licences.
Many argue that the annual Mining Indaba, held in February in Cape Town, is now a forum for global companies to plan investments in the rest of Africa rather than its host nation.
South Africa’s mining sector, which is mature relative to those of other African states, has underperformed its global peers throughout the last commodity boom because of policy uncertainty, infrastructure “bottlenecks” and rising costs.
Zuma argues that the real reason behind the criticism is that mining companies would rather invest in countries with lax or nonexistent regulations where investors can “make the rules”.
“It’s this mentality of wanting to deal with someone who is … inferior. South Africa has the banks, it has everything. You can’t just walk in and do an investment without being charged or whatever.”
He adds, however, that his officials are looking into the “bottlenecks”.
Businesspeople have been encouraged by Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointment last December as the ANC’s Deputy President.
Ramaphosa has been in business since the mid-1990s after losing the race to be Nelson Mandela’s successor to Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.
Some speculate the urbane union leader turned magnate may be lined up to be the party’s next leader and then the country’s President, but he would first have to win intense party battles.
Zuma, who won a second five-year term as party leader after seeing off a challenge from the country’s Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, plays down talk that Ramaphosa’s appointment marks a shift of tack to more business-friendly policies.
He also dismisses the challenge posed by the launch of a political movement by Mamphela Ramphele, the former activist and World Bank official, who lambasts the ANC’s record.
“I still have to see the better advanced alternative policies she could come up with that are better than the ANC’s.”
Asked how he would grade his first term as ANC leader, he gives himself 70 percent but concedes the ANC has to do better at implementing policies.
So how will the ANC avoid the fate of other liberation movements that lost their way and then power?
The ANC will stay in power “for a long, long, long time”, he says.
Voters do not make an “intellectual choice”, he says. “They still see the ANC as the party of liberation.”