President Jacob Zuma reacts while participating in a discussion at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2017 meeting in Durban. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD
President Jacob Zuma reacts while participating in a discussion at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2017 meeting in Durban. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

President Jacob Zuma gave the main World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos in January a miss and he skipped 2016’s WEF Africa meeting in Kigali, Rwanda. Whether he was trying to dodge difficult questions from global investors and peers or simply did not care was not clear. But the president chose the occasion of last week’s WEF Africa meeting in Durban, leading a delegation of no fewer than 18 of SA’s cabinet ministers, which included his brand-new finance minister, Malusi Gigaba.

It was an apposite moment for Zuma and Gigaba to set out their stall and try to undo some of the damage Zuma did with his midnight cabinet reshuffle in April. They made the most of it, taking centre stage and using opportunities, formal and informal, to try to reassure global and local business leaders that SA was on the right track.

Whether they succeeded is not at all clear. They were not helped by the fact that, in contrast to previous WEF meetings, government had to go it alone.

The trouble is all the honied words come in a context that is well-known to those at the WEF whom Zuma and Gigaba sought to court — and ousted finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s presence in Durban was a visible reminder of it

The business and labour leaders who teamed up with government to sell SA Inc and tried to attract investors at the last two Davos meetings were not about to do so in Durban. SA’s CEOs have made clear their fury at Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle and the junking of SA’s credit rating that followed. And many in organised labour made their opposition clear at the Cosatu congress in Bloemfontein last week when they booed Zuma’s speech.

So it was bizarre, in a way, to see Zuma being more favourably received at the WEF than he had been by Cosatu — and as odd to see him in charm-offensive mode, giving impromptu press conferences, doing walkabouts and taking questions where he has lately done his best to avoid these.

He said many of the right things, most particularly when he answered a question about the Cosatu booing by saying, in effect, "that’s democracy". He punted his radical economic transformation narrative and went in heavy on the race issue, but he lined that up with the inclusive growth narrative favoured by business and the WEF itself. He even offered a novel explanation of his decision to reshuffle his cabinet — just as a court ruled he had to detail the rationale — saying his intention was to make room for young people.

Gigaba said many of the right things too, particularly in a well-attended one-on-one session of his own that the WEF included in the programme. He sang the Treasury song on fiscal matters, emphasising that the 2017 budget was already locked down and that in any event, he had no intention of being less prudent than his predecessor. "We can’t spend money we don’t have," he said, as he too talked about inclusive growth and the need to grow the economy to expand the revenue base from which to invest in socioeconomic programmes.

The ANC had to be self-critical, said a seemingly humble Gigaba. And a new approach to black economic empowerment was needed that would focus more on using state procurement to create black industrialists than on transferring ownership as in the past.

How comfortable the business leaders felt with all this was not clear, but at some level at least, his efforts have given investors what they want to hear. The trouble is all the honied words come in a context that is well-known to those at the WEF whom Zuma and Gigaba sought to court — and ousted finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s presence in Durban was a visible reminder of it. Zuma’s reshuffle was not about putting in more competent people, or younger ones, but about removing those who stood in the way of his faction’s efforts to plunder the state for their own ends, and putting in more pliable replacements. That context will continue to undermine any credibility the president and his new finance minister might have, no matter what the forum.

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