South Africa's Zuma is no idiot; right now he’s playing big Africa politics like a master drummer

There was never a loaded rifle Zuma never wanted to shoot – at his foot; but he’s cleverly exploited crises in Africa to bury xenophobia baggage.

SOUTH Africa’s president Jacob Zuma, battling seemingly-endless corruption allegations at home, is a man who would probably snap off your hand if you offered him a magic wand to make his problems go away.

Public perception of him is anything but kind, born of rather oafish tendencies to bumble and shoot himself in the foot—there was never a loaded rifle Zuma never wanted to try out.

A lot of it is self-inflicted, he is a man not known for being particularly vocal and forceful when he should be, and you could argue he missed a lot of public relations classes. But those who know him swear he is an extremely charming man.

Zuma has also shown woefully bad judgement in the past, which has done little to burnish his image credentials. Most memorably, while deputy president, he was accused of forcing himself on a HIV positive woman. 

His defence was that it was consensual, and would say in court that  after having sex with the woman, he took a shower because this “would minimise the risk of contracting the disease [HIV]”.

Zuma’s reference to the HIV-preventing abilities of a good shower, and his many blunders have been received gleefully by cartoonist, and perhaps none more so than Zapiro. (Zapiro/

To this day, he has never lived the monumental blunder down, as comedians and cartoonists fall over themselves to keep the caricature alive in public discussions.

Toughest moments

It is a long list of lows, but perhaps one of the toughest moments, both globally and continentally, for Zuma came earlier this year during the xenophobic attacks on African immigrants in South Africa’s cities of Durban and Johannesburg. At least six immigrants were killed, and thousands driven out of their homes and condemnation and ridicule flowed from every corner.

Equally embarrassing for South Africa, Africa’s second largest economy after Nigeria, but its richest, were the frenzied scenes of South African mobs looting shops and homes of immigrants.

However, though the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) was confused and, often thoughtless, in its response it was actually better this time than during the 2008 attacks.

More ideological and polemical, then-president Thabo Mbeki refused to acknowledge those attacks as xenophobic, in part because he wasn’t willing to accept that post-apartheid democratic South Africa was capable of it.

This time, though Zuma and government leaders flip flopped, they acknowledged the attacks were xenophobic and wrong, and signaled their view with more aggressive policing to halt them. That might partly explain why fewer than 10 people were killed this time, when in 2008 the violence left 62 dead – 21 of them South Africans.

Shrewd Zuma

However, in the last month, Zuma has cannily turned the crisis around, showcasing his proverbial political cunning and teflon character, and how he has frequently exploited the fact that adversaries underestimate him to pull a fast on them. Using the opportunity of high profile events, and several other African crises, he is managing to get a notable shine for himself and his country.

Signs that the South African leader and his handlers were beginning to rediscover their mojo came in late April.

Addressing the public on Freedom Day at the Union Buildings South Lawn, Zuma chastised African governments who “criticise the South African government but their citizens are in our country”, even as he took a firm stance against the wave of xenophobic violence gripping his country.

 “As much as we have a problem that is alleged to be xenophobic, our sister countries contribute to this. Why are their citizens not in their countries and are in South Africa?” he asked.

The comments came in the wake of Nigeria recalling its ambassador to South Africa in protest at the xenophobic violence. (READ:  On xenophobicattacks, Zuma asks Africa: ‘Why are their citizens not in their countries and are in South Africa?’).

It doesn’t bleach the shame of the violence, but it was a question waiting to be asked – if someone at the level of Zuma had the courage to ask it. For, at the end of the day, the fact that anything up to three million Africans are in South Africa as asylum seekers, exiles, illegal and legal immigrants, is itself partly a result of political and economic reforms in their home countries.

A solution to the immigrant question in South Africa, must also come from the source countries of the immigrants fixing their economies and establishing working democracies; Zimbabwe - the leading source of immigrants – being the best example of failure here.

Third term sagas

South Africa also upped its role in the diplomacy around the political crisis and violence in Burundi, caused by president Pierre Nkurunzinza’s push to stand for a third term that his critics says violates the two-term limit provided by the constitution, and the peace agreements that in early 2000s ended the country’s deadly civil war.

It was a return to Burundi for South Africa, which had been one of the key players, with Tanzania and Uganda, in helping end the civil war.

However, Zuma himself personally also chose to attend a Burundi crisis meeting in Tanzania with East African leaders two weeks after a coup failed against Nkurunziza by generals opposed to his bid to remain president.

There are Burundi immigrants in South Africa, and some of them were attacked. The Burundi crisis, and the fact that a country that many thought had stabilised was unravelling, only helped Zuma more sharply frame the point he had made in his Freedom Day speech – that the rest of Africa needed to put its house in order, and their citizens fleeing down south was not a solution.

Then just over a week ago at the World Economic Forum on Africa in South Africa’s coastal city of Cape Town, Zuma, who is serving his second and last term, laid into African leaders seeking to change constitutions to allow them stand for third terms – a growing problem on the continent.

Strikingly, Zuma has spoken about the tragedy of African immigrants drowning in the Mediterranean more than any other leader on the continent, perhaps obliquely making the point that the fate of immigrants who end up in South Africa isn’t as bad. (Photo/Getty Images).

 “This business of us agreeing to serve two terms, only to realise ten years is too short, is a problem,” Zuma said. He said the African Union (AU) as a political bloc should resolve not to allow any attempt by presidents on the continent to seek a third term in office.

Zuma was supported by Ghana’s Vice President Kwesi Amissah-Arthur, who said the issue of presidential term limits should be raised at the AU summit that started in Johannesburg Sunday. (READ:  Zuma and Ghana VP slam leaders who break term limits, as Rwanda minister says nation backs Kagame 3rd run).

By so doing Zuma portrayed South Africa as still being a more democratic nation than most others on the continent, despite the hit it took to its image after the xenophobic acts.

Some also saw it as a side swipe at a donor darling, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, who is facing calls and petitions to support the amendment of the constitution, and to stand for a third term in 2017 when his current second term comes to an end. 

Relations between South Africa and Rwanda have been frosty in recent years. Rwanda has accused South Africa of backing genocidal elements seeking to overthrow its government, and South Africa in turn has linked Kigali to assassination attempts on Rwandan exiles in the country.

Deaths in the Mediterranean

As African leaders started arriving in South Africa for the AU summit, Zuma seized on another uncomfortable subject – the deaths of thousands of Africa migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

Zuma said it amounted to an indictment of leadership in Africa.

“In recent times, we have all witnessed painful and shameful images of our African brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and children dying during unsafe passage across the Mediterranean Sea,” Zuma said Saturday in Johannesburg.

“This is an indictment to all of us and calls on us to realise that although we have done so much to improve the living standards of our people, there is a need to double our efforts.”

At least 700 people died when a boat carrying migrants sank off Libya in April.

More than 54,000 migrants have arrived in Italy this year, most of them from Eritrea, Somalia and a variety of sub-Saharan and West African countries, Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, said June 9.

And in a statement likely to be received well, Zuma said his nation welcomes people from elsewhere in Africa.

“Contrary to misplaced beliefs, South Africans’ blood remains warmly African,” the president said.

Beside cleverly returning to his theme of other African countries needing to do more to encourage their people stay at home, Zuma clearly was hinting that whatever happened to African immigrants in South Africa, wasn’t the worst that could happen.

Bashir headache

The one headache that he needs to deal with now, is that presented by Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir who is attending the AU summit in Johannesburg.

 Zuma (R), Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (C) and Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta (L) attend the 33rd Summit of the NEPAD Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee and the African Peer review Mechanism (APRM) summit within the 25th AU Summit in Johannesburg on June 13, 2015. (Photo/Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has urged South Africa to execute two warrants of arrest issued against al-Bashir.

South Africa’s High Court barred Bashir from leaving the country while it decides whether to order the government to arrest him on war- crimes charges.

Judge Hans Fabricius made the interim ruling at a hearing in Pretoria, where the case was scheduled to resume later Sunday.

Bashir, who has ruled Sudan for 25 years, was indicted by the ICC in 2009 and 2010 for alleged atrocities in the western region of Darfur. South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the ICC.

There were reports of anti-ICC leaflets being handed out in summit corridors, even as Pretoria was said to have dispatched an envoy to pacify the ICC.

The AU has previously passed resolutions attacking the ICC, criticising it of targeting Africans at the height of its case against Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto.

The court has since dropped the case against Kenyatta, but that against Ruto continues.

The AU has sought to have Africa walk out of the ICC en masse, but that has not come to fruition.

Zuma, whose government has twice refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa to visit South Africa, is definitely not one to arrest al-Bashir.

Zuma will probably present his refusal to cooperate with the ICC on the arrest as the wish of Africa and the AU, again also making the point that the political standards on the continent are quite low, allowing South Africa to assume a mild superior posture. But he will get African leaders’ gratitude nevertheless, profiting from the affair.

It is also not lost on observers that, perhaps capping it all, he has been on what has been called a “state capture” project, stuffing key institutions with cronies and sympathisers, a thoroughly African thing to do. In the process he has outfoxed what otherwise seem like smarter and better educated opponents – Zuma had very little formal education.

So, at what might otherwise have been the point where Zuma is hiding in shame from Africa, he is actually standing triumphant – a remarkable achievement.

-Additional reporting by Bloomberg

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