Zuma’s revenge

R W Johnson, Comment is Free, The Guardian (London), 26 March 2008

By cultivating a relationship with Angola's president, Jacob Zuma has found another way to put political rival Thabo Mbeki in the shade

Jacob Zuma, the new president of the African National Congress, has pulled off a major coup with his visit to Angola, which finished yesterday.

The background to the visit is that relations between President Thabo Mbeki and the government of Angola's president, Eduardo Dos Santos, have long been extremely frosty. Angola, though a poor and war-torn state, is growing at an annual compound rate in excess of 25% due to its burgeoning oil industry, and Dos Santos, feeling his enhanced importance, has not appreciated Mbeki's somewhat lordly approach.

Last year, the so-called Browse Mole Report was circulated, clearly inspired by the Mbeki government, in which Zuma - Mbeki's deadly rival - was accused of plotting a possible coup using his links with the ANC's former guerrilla arm, Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK), with financial support from Angola and Libya. This was tantamount to an accusation that Dos Santos was supporting subversion in South Africa.

Zuma led a major ANC delegation (including the former intelligence boss, Billy Masetlha) on his four-day visit in which he conferred with Dos Santos on a wide range of issues. Mbeki's nose is doubtless out of joint not only because of the clear amity between Zuma and Dos Santos (who provided Zuma's delegation with his private plane to fly them back to Johannesburg), but also because it was, to all intents and purposes, a state visit.

The visit was formally to observe the 20th anniversary of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in which Cuban, Namibian and Angolan forces inflicted a significant reverse on the armed forces of apartheid South Africa. Zuma promised to erect a memorial to the MK soldiers who had died in Angola and thanked the Angolans for their "unequalled" support of the anti-apartheid struggle - for no country suffered greater casualties and dislocation than Angola. Zuma also said that he and Dos Santos planned to increase trade and investment links between the two countries, with South Africa investing in Angola's minerals, agriculture and tourism industries. Given Angola's undoubted riches and rocketing growth, there are bound to be considerable opportunities.

Thus Zuma has pulled off a major coup. He has appeared as a presidential statesman, doing good for his country's economy and foreign relations; he has appeared able to cultivate an important friend where Mbeki had failed; and he has emphasised his own association with the MK guerrillas, the military heroes of the armed struggle, while Mbeki had no role in MK.

Mbeki, who is used to being the country's sole statesman, has, in effect, been elbowed off the stage, and the country has been given a glimpse of how it might benefit from a Zuma presidency. None of which will sit well with Mbeki. Zuma has quite openly (and, doubtless, correctly) accused Mbeki of being behind the long-running attempt to convict him of corruption. This latest visit will only add to the tension between the two men.


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