South Africa, World, Politics

Reporter’s Davos notebook: Beware of Russia, Biden warns a chilled Europe

By Stephen Grootes 18 January 2017

On Wednesday the outgoing US administration called Russia’s bluff and accused it of trying to influence, by crook or by hook, upcoming elections in Europe. It was a warning to the Kremlin, an appeal to Europe to stay united, and a passionate defence of the fact that facts matter. Meanwhile, your frozen correspondent was conducting an interview with the man from KwaZulu-Natal who may determine the fate of our small part of the globe. It was Day Two at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Joe Biden leaves the US Vice-Presidency as possibly the most popular man to occupy the office in generations. Al Gore “lost” the presidency to the second George Bush, Dick Cheney earned a hard-won reputation for ruthlessness and war-mongering (and proved that he is not a good shot himself), leaving the office with princely 17% approval rate, while most people have forgotten who Dan Quayle actually was. Biden leaves with internet memes extolling his virtues, and his bromance with Barack Obama.

But he still took the stage here with virtually no current political capital left. He will be out of power in just a few hours from now. And this was a last chance to make a point; he used it well.

Biden started by saying that, in the great sweep of human history, and certainly since the Second World War, “We’re probably safer than we’ve ever been. But it doesn’t feel that way.” He went on to explain how people were affronted by images of pain and suffering and conflict that they would not have seen “before the digital age”. About how there was a “feeling of chaos, of being overrun by outside forces”. It was a distilled explanation for the angst we see in what Davos still calls “developed economies”, a precis of the political playbook used by the Donald Trumps and Boris Johnsons of the world to scare people into voting for them.

And he also made the plea for people to remember that “facts matter”, that there can be no such thing as the idea that they don’t, or that we can make up our own facts.

Biden wasted no time in defending the current order, that “while there may be a feeling to close the walls, that is precisely the wrong answer”, that it wouldn’t fix any of the problems in the interconnected world. And worse, “it risks eroding the system that led to the West’s historically unparalleled success”.

And then the fun part, the bit about Russia:

I won’t mince my words,” he said. “This movement is principally led by Russia.”

In case there was any misunderstanding, he added:

Russia is working with every tool at its disposal to whittle away at the European Project… to return to a politics defined by spheres of influence.”

And then came the claim that, “We should expect further attempts by Russia to meddle in the democratic process. It will occur again, I promise you. And again the purpose is clear, to collapse the liberal international order.”

Biden, of course, knew exactly what he is saying.

As a journalist who believes in freedom and democracy and openness and all of those boring things, it’s hard not to be swayed by his oratory. Of course, the US has made mistakes, and behaved badly. He acknowledged this (although he didn’t mention the invasion of Iraq specifically).

But when you consider Russia’s recent behaviour, and the simple weight of evidence that seems to exist, well, it would certainly serve Putin’s interests to weaken the EU.

Not everyone in our country would necessarily share that view. President Jacob Zuma has shown every indication that he wants to get closer to Russia. When he needed medical attention (after what still looks like that bid to poison him… by his own wife), he didn’t seek the best, most transparent care in the world. Instead, he went to Moscow.

Would you put your health in the tender care of a doctor who answers to a former KGB agent?

Well, after all of that, it was time to turn to matters more domestic. Sihle Zikalala strolled into the Brand SA venue, looking a lot more comfortable than he did on Tuesday (perhaps he had simply managed to get some sleep). As the Tourism and Economic Development MEC for KwaZulu-Natal, he’s technically here to get up to speed on the World Economic Forum, as its Africa meeting will be hosted in Durban later in the year. He’s someone this reporter has spoken to many times on the phone, but never, before Tuesday, actually met.

Zikilala has done many things; he once ran a campaign against Julius Malema in the ANC Youth League, but his side lost. Arguably, he won in the longer run, as his province could now play the kingmaker role in December.

He’s a good performer on broadcast media – the answers come quickly and easily, the importance of the WEF in Durban, selling the city, how it helps to have airlines landing at Durban directly from places like Ethiopia and Turkey. He sounds like a person on top of his brief, who knows what he’s trying to do, and how to sell it.

And Zikalala had the grace not to appear annoyed or flustered when your correspondent inevitably turned the conversation to domestic politics and the ANC. EWN had led on Wednesday morning with a story about his predecessor as KZN leader, Senzo Mchunu. Mchunu had claimed the ANC was moving in the wrong direction, and that Zuma was no longer a good leader. Zikalala wasn’t going to give the sound bite that he disagreed with Mchunu. Even though the two have serious history and he obviously does.

Instead there was a sort of platitude about how everyone in the ANC can have a view, that it’s a democratic organisation, etc, etc. How the fact that it’s a democratic organisation but members are not yet allowed to discuss the names of the leaders they want to take over wasn’t fully explained. He also wasn’t going to fall into any kind of trap that would lead to a headline of him saying nice things about Cyril Ramaphosa or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. He did say that “Cyril Ramaphosa is a good leader of the ANC, I was highly impressed with his presentation in the session that we had. But I’m not here for a leadership discussion in the ANC.” Fair enough.

He was more interesting though on the issue of Zuma, claiming that “most of the members of the ANC have full confidence in the leadership of the president. As the province of KwaZulu-Natal we support the president and the leadership, not him as an individual”.

This comment does seem to directly contradict an internal report that emerged last year. The Business Day newspaper was able to publish parts of the document that seemed to suggest that in fact branches and regions of the ANC did want Zuma – and the entire NEC, in fact – to resign. Zikalala takes issue with this, saying it was not a “quantitative study” and did not actually go into numbers. That all it said was that some branches and regions wanted Zuma to go.

Perhaps. But the fact that the NEC is as divided as it is surely suggests that to say “most of the members of the ANC” want Zuma to stay is straying away from Biden’s reminder that “facts matter”.

All of that said, Zikalala may actually have shown part of his hand. He ended the interview by saying that it wasn’t leadership and names that were important at the ANC’s December conference (believe that and you will believe anything). Rather, it was that the conference “should focus on key issues. Especially economic transformation. People are unemployed in South Africa, people do not have land”.

A close reading of the recent statements by the ANC Youth League and the ANC Women’s League may suggest that within the ANC these phrases, “economic transformation” and “land” may be, or could become, proxies for support for Dlamini-Zuma. In other words, it’s a signal to parts of the Premier League and others that they are not with Ramaphosa.

After all of that, it was time for a walk, a chance to clear the head and freeze the brain. The latter part of this process took literally 30 seconds. If you don’t put your beanie on before you leave the building, your head is a frozen toast.

Strolling along the main road during one of these meetings in Davos is to walk past Larry Summers, to marvel at the unbelievable strength of the Swiss franc, and to wonder what on Earth happened to all the women. If there is one thing the WEF has not managed, it’s to get anywhere near parity in terms of gender. People here, the “global elite”, are overwhelmingly male, and of course, pale. It shows you how much progress we have made, although of course nowhere near enough, as South Africans in this regard. Certainly, it was something that almost jumped out at me walking down the icy pavement here.

If there is one person in the South African delegation who has spent time in the cold, although he says he never got used to it, it’s Presidency Minister Jeff Radebe. He spent three years in East Germany during the Struggle, and still speaks some German. The man always does a good turn in inscrutability. Always friendly, always warm, always quick with a handshake and a “how are you”, but incredibly difficult to get a strong answer from. This talent, and it is a valuable talent, has served him well in his various responsibilities.

He too was spectacularly unsurprised at questions about the ANC. He is head of policy for the party, and has often managed to appear relatively neutral in some of its debates (although Malema would disagree). He is confident the ANC will survive 2017 intact. Radebe wasn’t at this week’s ANC National Working Committee meeting that ordered members to stop naming names in the context of the leadership race, but he “fully endorses the decision”. When asked whether it was really possible to stop people from doing this, he gave a realistic answer.

The statement of the NWC has stated that, and I understand that all the officials were there and the majority of the members of the National Working Committee. So let’s see what happens next.”

Hmm. Not exactly a sign that he expects everyone to fall in line, then. At least he’s being realistic.

Realism is not in short supply here. The atmosphere, South Africa’s headquarters aside, is distinctly gloomy. It’s as if the world is about to change. And it is. As early as Friday, actually. DM

Photo: US Vice-President Joe Biden speaks during a panel session on the first day of the 46th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, 20 January 2016. EPA/LAURENT GILLIERON


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