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David Attacks Goliath

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With six months to go before South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), goes to its elective conference, incumbent president Jacob Zuma looks set to get another term. And with that, a renewed focus on continental politics, for which his critics have chided him.

Zuma’s opponent, Julius Malema, the party’s rebellious youth league president, is not contesting the ANC presidency but is the spokesperson of a disparate group united in wanting the 70-year-old former political prisoner and intelligence operative removed from power. Their campaign though, has been dealt a huge blow.

Malema is facing several disciplinary charges and the party’s internal disciplinary committee has found him guilty on some, meaning that whatever the outcome, the young man looks set for the political rubbish dump. Unless a worthy challenger emerges between now and the December conference and goes on to defeat Zuma, he is set to remain at the helm of the 100-year-old political party and the head of Africa’s most powerful economy.

Among Malema’s most stinging criticisms of Zuma’s reign was that he had failed spectacularly where his predecessor Thabo Mbeki had done extremely well—in pursuing the African agenda. It was a criticism, and a comparison, that hurt Zuma and one that he has since looked eager to correct.

So, on March 20, when Zuma walked into the Sandton studios of pan-African television channel CNBC Africa for a live hour-long interview, with some of the continent’s CEOs and board chairpersons in the audience, he knew he had a mission to accomplish, or as his aides would have probably preferred to put it, he had a myth or two to debunk.

Sitting opposite CNBC Africa’s chief editor Godfrey Mutizwa, and occasionally fielding questions during crossings to CEOs in countries like Nigeria and Kenya, Zuma showed composure for someone who has countenanced perhaps harsher criticism than any post-apartheid president.

While some of the condemnation prior to his election had a lot to do with his indiscretions, which in turn led to sexual assault charges against him, others were in subtle ways questioning whether a man with only a primary-school education, would be able to fill the shoes of his Sussex-educated predecessor and intellectual, Mbeki. Was he best suited to preside over an ambitious country that not only likes to punch above its weight, and which likes to be loved, but is also the most sophisticated African economy?

The more Zuma sold his optimistic disposition of the continent to the CNBC viewers and the studio audience, the more friends he seemed to be making among the attendant captains of industry, many of whom wasted no time in praising him for his “insightful comments” and for “answering questions”.

One of the continent’s biggest “strides”, he said, was the formation of the African Union. “For the first time, we could define ourselves as one, as Africans and not as former British, Belgian, French colonies.”

The AU has been credited with bringing about continental political stability through promoting the culture of democratic elections as well as the principle of non-recognition of people who grab political power through coups d’état.

Zuma shared with his audience how the AU had advanced in getting member states to commit to investor friendliness, infrastructure development, better and responsible management of natural resources, environmental sustainability, education, and had now started talks about the integration of the continent’s five regional economic blocks. Asked to give timelines for the “practical implication” of the integration process, he replied: “It took two world wars before Europe could come together. Africa should be given a chance.”

A welcome sign of confidence in Africa’s future, Zuma added, was the inclusion of South Africa in BRICS, the increasingly influential group of emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India and China. “Africa is now part of countries that are going to determine (the world’s economic) direction,” he said.

“I don’t see a crisis. I see prosperity in Africa,” he told the audience, and with a great deal of satisfaction, not to mention his trademark coy chuckle that usually signals cynicism. “Other people speak positively about Africa. Sometimes it’s Africans themselves who are negative; who feel Africa is in trouble.”

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