04/09/2012.President Jacob Zuma during the cabinet lekgotla that was held at SM Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria Picture: Masi Losi

Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma has come under fire for his controversial statement about the mentality of Africans, with some labelling him “afro-pessimistic”.

This came after he made disparaging remarks about the state of roads in Malawi while trying to justify the need for South Africans to pay for e-tolls.

Zuma’s utterances were also seen as feeding into perceptions across the continent that South Africans thought they were better than their African brothers and sisters.

Speaking at an ANC manifesto forum at Wits University on Monday night, Zuma was quoted as saying: “We can’t think like Africans, in Africa, generally. We are in Johannesburg, this is Johannesburg. It’s not some national road in Malawi”.

The remarks flew in the face of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who championed his African Renaissance and the need for African solutions to African problems.

South Africa has invested a lot of energy and resources since 1994 trying to end conflicts on the African continent to boost much-needed economic development.

Zuma’s comments seem to have outraged many South Africans, with some taking to social networks to vent their unhappiness.

It was unclear on Tuesday night whether his remarks could jeopardise relations or spark a diplomatic row between Pretoria and Lilongwe.

Political secretary at the Malawi High Commission Kumbu Kuntiya said they were still awaiting an official communication from the Malawian government on the matter.

 

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said Zuma should just apologise and retract his statement.

“You can’t clarify that unfortunately. And my view is very simple. It was an expression of afro-pessimism and he made a clear emphasis. We can’t have afro-pessimism coming from the highest office in the land. He must apologise,” added Mathekga.

He said the comments were “beyond undiplomatic” and fed into the perception that South Africans thought highly of themselves in relation to their fellow Africans.

On Tuesday, the Presidency and the ANC were at serious pains trying to clarify Zuma’s remarks.

Presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj described the reports as “distorted”, while ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu said Zuma’s comments had been “mischievously” singled out.

Maharaj said Zuma had commented off the cuff that, for example, it was not fair to expect Gauteng roads to be compared to roads in other towns such as “Pietermaritzburg, Rustenburg, Polokwane or any other town or national road in Malawi, as this was Gauteng, the heartbeat of South Africa’s economy”.

Mthembu said Zuma’s comments had been misunderstood.

“The ANC places it on record that both the organisation and the president hold the people of Malawi and elsewhere on the continent in high regard,” said Mthembu.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane also called on Zuma to withdraw his statement.

“What the president doesn’t realise is that Africa is actually developing at a faster pace than he suggests. Mr President, we are not being backward when we say we can’t afford e-tolls,” he said.

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