DAVOS, Switzerland – South African President Jacob Zuma missed a Davos panel talk on Africa on Thursday, the continent’s top showcase at the alpine gathering, prompting questions about his commitment to drumming up interest in his country’s struggling economy.
Zuma’s office denied he was a ‘no-show’ at the discussion, which featured Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, saying it had told Davos organisers last week of a “scheduling change”.
It also dismissed as “inaccurate and mischievous” a domestic media report that Zuma had only pulled out of the event late on Wednesday, and said South Africa’s delegation was being well-received at the event.
“The message that South Africa is open for business is being communicated by the President, Ministers and business leaders in all sessions in Davos,” it said in a statement.
In Zuma’s absence, South Africa had no representation on the CNBC-sponsored Africa panel. Instead, he attended a bilateral meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to discuss “warm and strong bilateral relations”.
When contacted by Reuters to ask why Zuma was not on the Africa panel as scheduled, spokesman Bongani Majola reacted by saying: “Are you sure about that?”
Davos organisers were yet to respond to Reuters’ questions on the timing of the president’s withdrawal from the event.
Zuma, a 73-year-old Zulu traditionalist with no formal education, has long been criticised for his leadership, with opponents saying he lacks the skills and understanding to run a sophisticated emerging market economy.
The concerns have deepened over the last year as Pretoria has struggled to deal with a slump in the price of commodities such as platinum, coal and iron ore that has hit growth and the currency, the rand.
Last month he sent domestic markets and the rand into a tailspin after firing respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and replacing him with David van Rooyen, a political unknown whose only budgetary experience was as a small-town mayor.
Four days later, he sacked van Rooyen to bring Pravin Gordhan back to a position he occupied from 2009 to 2014, restoring some calm to markets but refusing to admit he had done long-term damage to South Africa’s reputation.
The opposition Democratic Alliance said Zuma’s failure to attend the panel was typical of his indifference to the plight of an economy forecast to grow at less than 1 percent this year.
“The president is behaving as somebody who is not aware of the fact our economy is in crisis,” party leader Mmusi Maimane told Reuters. “The whole purpose of his being in Davos is to try to generate confidence in the South African economy.”