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While in China, Zuma takes a beating back home

South Africa's president tours the BRICs. Is it the wrong time?

visitor at Expo
A visitor walks past a decorated wall in the African zone at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai on Aug. 24, 2010. South African President Jacob Zuma was in Beijing on Tuesday to talk with his counterpart Hu Jintao about broadening the relationship between Beijing and Africa's biggest economy. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING, China — While South African President Jacob Zuma sings the Chinese government’s praises and pushes for increased trade with Beijing, back home he is under fire as more than a million workers enter the second week of a devastating strike.

In a speech today at Beijing’s Renmin University on the second day of an official visit to China, Zuma spoke glowingly about the shift in power away from Western countries and the rise of emerging economies, in particular China.

This is the last stop on a tour of major emerging markets that has seen Zuma travel to Brazil, Russia, India and now China in little more than a year since taking office, in a bid to boost trade and investment and lobby for South Africa’s entry into the group of BRIC countries.

But back in South Africa, union leaders are angry that he is abroad at a time when a strike over wages by civil servants has seen schools shut and the army sent in to hospitals to prevent disruptions by strikers after reports of deaths of patients, including babies, from lack of care.

“Zuma shops in China while strikers ruin SA,” said the front page of The Times, a Johannesburg newspaper. Zuma’s absence has drawn comparisons to the frequent overseas trips of former president Thabo Mbeki, criticized for leaving the country in times of crisis.

In Beijing, Zuma’s visit received the typical press treatment by state media — glowingly positive, boasting of cooperative, win-win partnerships, and prominently featuring the obligatory “grip and grin” photo with President Hu Jintao.

In his speech this morning, Zuma indirectly praised Beijing’s authoritarian political system, asking what South Africa can learn from the Chinese government. “Is the political discipline in China a recipe for economic success for example?”

Speaking yesterday to the South Africa-China Business Forum, he highlighted the historical claims often cited by the Chinese government when defending its presence in Africa, noting that the Mapungubwe kingdom in South Africa’s Limpopo province had commercial ties with China more than a thousand years ago.

“However, colonialism interrupted these mutually beneficial relations,” Zuma said. “The rise of China indicates that the world is now returning to its historical economic powers and trade patterns.”

Zuma is on a three-day visit to Beijing and Shanghai with a delegation of 11 cabinet ministers and more than 350 businesspeople in tow – the biggest ever group brought abroad by a South African leader.

Some 15 agreements have been signed between China and South Africa companies on this trip, in areas including railways, mining, telecoms and power transmission. One of the more significant deals is the acquisition by Discovery Holdings Ltd., a South African private health care insurer, of a 20 percent stake in China's Ping An Health Insurance Co.