Jacob Zuma: 'We Have to do Things Differently'

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If South African President Jacob Zuma didn't have enough on his plate, with raging violent crime, unemployment of up to 40%, the world's largest HIV/AIDS population, a recession and the 2010 soccer World Cup, his first few months in office saw a wave of strikes and violent protests against poverty and low wages. Zuma, 67, spoke to Africa bureau chief Alex Perry at his official residence, Mahlamba-Ndlopfu, in Pretoria in August.

TIME: You've always portrayed yourself as a cipher for the ANC, an implementer of policies decided by the party, rather than a policy-maker. Does that still stand now you're President?
The ANC makes policy, not individuals. Anything that we talk about regards policy to a huge degree reflects the debates that have been held inside the party. And on policy, we have done very well — our policies have been very good. We have five priorities: education — critical; health — critical; rural development; job creation; and land reform.

As the leadership, we take the broad policy statements and make them specific; we implement policy, we put the party's conclusions into practice. So our job is also to look at our performance since 1994 and our leadership during 15 years of democracy. And there has been weakness in implementation. That means that we need to put more thinking into our implementation. We have to do things differently.

TIME: You're saying there have been mistakes.
That's part of the reality we have to look at. It's 15 years into our democracy, and you cannot still say after 15 years, after 20 years, that you are not able to do X, Y and Z. At this point in time, we have to do something extraordinary to make sure we are able to continue to move forward. Admitting your mistakes is also because I believe that honesty is important in politics. You lose nothing by admitting to where there have been weaknesses. When you recognize that, you can correct it. And it's only when you admit there have been deficiencies and weaknesses that you make sense to the people, who can see them for themselves.

TIME: What mistakes specifically?
Take the old ministry of minerals and energy. Mines are what [have] shaped the economy of South Africa, it will always remain an anchor of this country — and so it needs its own focus. Energy is also critical for the country. But they were in the same ministry. And as we were experiencing economic growth, and rolling out electricity to rural areas, suddenly there was an electricity shortage. That must indicate weakness. And if we did not see that, that energy was going to be a problem, that points to a shortcoming. So we now have separate ministries for mines and energy, each with its own focus.

Or take education. The reality is that our concentration has been on higher education rather than on basic education. There has been no focus on the more basic area. And we did not talk to the managers, to the school principals — it was just left to the bureaucracy. That's why we had a meeting of school principals from across the country in Durban. And education is one of the most important things. If we do not pay attention to education, we will never move forward.

There was no national plan. Departments tended to work side by side in silence. There was a need for a planning commission so we had an overarching plan for the country. So we created one. That also speaks to the need for the leadership to be well informed.

Finally, we also created a minister of the presidency to evaluate performance. That's a new way to check and ensure that there is implementation of policy and that there is performance. And that shows we are doing things differently. It's going to help us remove the slow walkers in government and identify and detect where there is corruption, instead of waiting for the auditor general's report. So you see we are reconfiguring government. We are trying to do things differently to achieve the implementation of ANC policy.

TIME: Some people haven't given you much time to correct the mistakes of the past. Already, thousands of protesters are out on the streets, demanding delivery of the services they have been waiting for. Some of the demonstrations have even been violent. Are you worried?
These problems don't come from just now. Still, you can't fault the people. After 15 years, people are saying: where is the delivery? I'm not worried. We are aware of our shortcomings. These challenges are based in reality. And that's why we restructured ourselves. This renewal came at the right time to meet these challenges. And it's in how we meet them that we will show how we will be successful. Nevertheless [the protests] say to the government that we had better move. It's a wake up call: Deal with this! Pay serious attention! If we do not deal with these things now, people will lose confidence in the ANC.

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