South Africa tried to patch up relations with Malawi on Thursday after a gaffe by President Jacob Zuma about the state of its roads that reinforced stereotypes of awful African infrastructure and South African arrogance.
With Malawians accusing Zuma of a misplaced superiority complex, Deputy Foreign Minister Marius Fransman, in the capital for a regional summit, met President Joyce Banda to convey a personal message from the leader of Africa’s biggest economy.
The meeting came the day after South Africa’s ambassador to Lilongwe was hauled in to explain the remarks.
“He (Fransman) did meet President Joyce Banda this morning to deliver a message from President Jacob Zuma, but I was not privy to that message,” Max Cameron, a diplomat at the South African embassy in Lilongwe, told Reuters.
Zuma put Malawian – and many other African – noses out of joint on Monday with a throw-away remark about why his government was introducing unpopular road tolls to pay for a massive upgrade to Johannesburg’s and Pretoria’s motorways.
“We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally. We are in Johannesburg. This is Johannesburg,” he said. “It is not some national road in Malawi. No.”
The comment kicked off a furore in the press and on social media. Zuma, who was speaking in English, not his native Zulu, is prone to blunders when he strays from prepared speeches.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said the comments were taken out of context and “blown completely out of proportion”.
The ANC also denied its leaders had an overinflated sense of self-worth and saw themselves as somehow removed from the rest of the continent by geography, wealth and power – a widely held perception outside South Africa.
“The African National Congress places it on record that both the organization and the president hold the people of Malawi and elsewhere on the continent in high regard,” it said.
Neither line cut much ice with people in Malawi, an impoverished, landlocked state that nevertheless boasts a half-decent road network.
Some dredged up previous Zuma gaffes, including when he stated during a rape trial, in which he was acquitted, that he had showered after sex to reduce the chances of getting HIV.
“Mr. Zuma needs a real quick shower to wash his mouth and clean up his stupid statements,” civil servant Richard Mhone said.
Others accused him of hypocrisy, given that hundreds of thousands of Malawian migrants are working in South Africa.
“Zuma must understand one thing and that is apart from the white minority running his economy, Malawians are among the few black Africans working in key sectors and helping to build his country,” Lilongwe resident Edgar Banda said.