The Deputy President of South Africa?s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, Jacob Zuma, has been meeting in the United States with some of the country?s leading businesspeople and companies. Zuma is also one of SA?s most controversial political figures, having faced corruption and rape charges. Despite all of this, ?JZ? ? as he?s known in his home country ? remains extremely popular amongst millions of South Africans. Zuma?s in line to soon become leader of the ANC, and observers say this would open the way for him to succeed President Thabo Mbeki as SA?s next president. Darren Taylor reports. 

Jacob Zuma spent a few days in Austin, Texas meeting with leading American business executives and corporate CEO?s at the invitation of a firm called Strategic Forecasting, or STRATFOR.

STRATFOR markets itself as ?the world?s leading private intelligence company, providing individuals, organizations and Fortune 500 companies? with information that will, simply put, allow them to maximize profits and protect their interests around the globe. STRATFOR provides analysis to the American business community about political developments in countries of ?strategic importance? to US investors.

According to STRATFOR CEO, George Friedman, there?s a tangible feeling amongst American businessmen that Zuma could be South Africa?s next President, so they?re reaching out to him in an effort to forge good relations with him.  

Friedman says American businesspeople are becoming increasingly interested in investing in Africa, and in particular, in the continental economic hub ? South Africa. They therefore see Zuma as an ?important African leader.?

Friedman doesn?t want to mention the names of the American executives who have been meeting with Zuma, but he says they?re ?very well known.?

?There are some people who do direct investments in Africa, and they?re interested in putting money into South African enterprises. There are some people who operate large American companies, who are looking to open retail outlets in SA, or interested in building facilities there to take advantage of facilities in South Africa.?

Part of the reason he extended the invitation to Zuma to visit Texas, says Friedman, was the US business sector?s interest in finding out whether the ANC deputy president was ?pro-business or not. And one of the things that the (US) executives wanted to check is that if he became president ? as now seems quite a possibility ? what his attitude would be to foreign investment.?

Zuma?s particularly popular amongst his home country?s workers, and has often criticized Mr. Mbeki?s government for apparently enriching a black elite at the expense of blue-collar laborers and the unemployed. Yet Friedman notes that Zuma?s presence and affability at the Texas meetings belies his anti-capitalist image.

The ANC deputy leader, says Friedman, seems dedicated towards improving lives in South Africa through economic development, and appears to consider trade an investment as primary components thereof.

?He was extremely encouraging to these people (the US business community) to come to South Africa. He gave no indication whatsoever of not welcoming foreign investment,? says Friedman.

The STRATFOR CEO also revealed that his firm had completed a ?great deal of research? on Zuma before his arrival in Austin.

?There was a presentation (in that research) of him as a populist who was hostile to business. I can simply say that in the context of the meetings here, none of that came through. There was an interesting difference between what we read about Mr. Zuma, and what we saw of Mr. Zuma. He was very much a reasonable, committed developer of South Africa, with an acute sense of the world.?

Yet Friedman?s research also revealed Zuma?s controversial past.

The man who could become the next leader of the most powerful country in Africa was in 2005, when he was deputy president of South Africa, charged with corruption in connection with a weapons deal. Although Zuma?s financial advisor was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison, the then-deputy president himself escaped prosecution when the case was struck from the court roll after the prosecution?s application for a postponement of the case was dismissed. Prosecutors in SA, though, want to recharge Zuma.

Zuma also last year stood trial in Johannesburg for rape. His accuser was the young daughter of one of his friend?s from his years in the ANC undergound. During the trial, Zuma admitted to having consensual sex with the woman. He also acknowldeged that he?d engaged in unprotected sex with her, even while knowing at the time that she was HIV-positive. He was widely ridiculed in his homeland and internationally for claiming in court that he negated the risk of being infected with the virus by taking a shower after the sexual act.

Zuma was once again acquitted, and none of the charges against him has served to dent his image of a ?man of the people? amongst his loyal supporters, who still worship him because of his status as a former anti-apartheid fighter and political prisoner. 

Friedman says US businesspeople have ?noted? Zuma?s controversial past, but remain willing to engage with him. 

?Obviously if he were convicted of any of these things, this would cause great concern in working with him but we would assume that if he were convicted he would not be president. The general view (in the US business community) is this: South Africa is important; whoever is going to be president is going to be a figure to be reckoned with. At the moment, it appears that Mr. Zuma is odds-on to become president. That decision is South Africa?s decision. And the American business community is going to work with whoever is selected. And if it?s Mr. Zuma, they will by definition have to work with him.?