Mr. Zuma goes to Washington

Mr. Zuma goes to Washington

The most powerful man in South Africa, and one of the most controversial, came to Washington, D.C., this week, and tried to assure his American hosts that he is committed to market-friendly economic policies, to fighting HIV AIDS and to a free press and independent judiciary in South Africa.

They needed all the reassurance that Jacob Zuma could must because Zuma, who fought off corruption and rape charges to become the president of the African National Congress, has a history that unnerves many in the west, and particularly business people.

Zuma, 66, is a lifelong member of the ANC who was imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities. But he was forced out of the government in 2005 by President Thabo Mbeki after he was linked to a corrupt arms deal. He was later charged with racketeering, money laundering, corruption and fraud, but the charges were dropped on procedural grounds. He was also tried and acquitted of the rape of the 31-year-old daughter of an ANC official—herself an anti-AIDS activist. During his trial, Zuma admitted to having unprotected sex with his accuser but claimed that he took a shower afterwards to “cut the risk of contracting HIV.” Zuma then headed the National AIDS Council, and was ridiculed for his comment. His response was to sue the nation’s major newspapers for defamation.

As if that weren’t enough, Zuma has enjoyed his strongest support from the left wing of the ANC, including the radical ANC Youth League, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). It was with their support that he ousted the pro-business Mbeki as president of the ANC late last year. (At one rally, Zuma’s backers burned T-shirts with Mbeki’s picture on them.) Last month, Zuma and allies drove Mbeki to resign as president, paving the way for Zuma to replace him after elections next year.

This divisive figure was nowhere to be found when Zuma appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations, during a lunchtime event on Monday at the Carnegie Institution. He was interviewed by Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa who introduced him as “a man of some controversy” but did not bring up either the rape case or the corruption charges.

Zuma came across as thoughtful, even sedate, and entirely uncontroversial. He downplayed his own role as a strongman, saying that the ANC believes firmly in collective decision-making, compromise and negotiation. “Nobody ever thought apartheid would end in a negotiated settlement, but we established a democracy,” he reminded an audience of about 100 business people, government officials and NGO types. “We don’t think that what is happening in South Africa politically should lead anyone to worry…everything is fine in South Africa.”

The ANC chief put some distance between himself and his more radical backers, notably Julius Malema, head of ANC’s youth league, who has attacked South Africa’s judges, criticized the press and once said, “We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.” Zuma said young activists have always been outspoken, adding, “I don’t think Malema meant what he said.” He also noted that Nelson Mandela and Mbeki both had Communist backers who play a useful role: “They are able to be the voice of the poor, who remain poor.”

On HIV AIDS, Zuma said the government policies have been better than its rhetoric, and that they would remain that way. “I think our policy has been good,” he said. Last month, South Africa’s interim president and Zuma ally, Kgalema Motlanthe, dismissed as health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who had dismayed AIDS activists by saying that nutritional remedies such as garlic, beetroot, lemon, olive oil and the African potato could help treat AIDS.

Finally, Zuma said he will welcome foreign investors. Indeed, he said he wanted to deepen ties with the U.S. “I don’t think there will be any changes in terms of our relations with investors.” He added: “Whatever economic policies we have must focus on job creation so that we do not have a huge army of the unemployed.”

This is his big challenge, of course. South Africa is one of the economic success stories of sub-Saharan Africa; it has enjoyed four years of economic growth at about 5 percent a year, a rate that’s expected to slow next year along with the rest of the global economy.

About 600 U.S. companies do business in South Africa, including Coca Cola, Caltex, Dow Chemical, General Motors and Ford. Zuma says the doors are open for more. “We believe America, up to now, has not taken … advantage of the open economy that we have,” he said.

In the years to come, Zuma more than anyone will have a lot to do with whether the country remains a growth story and an attractive place to do business.