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Zuma tours Americas, bonds with Chavez

Zuma strikes a progressive tone at the UN, attends the G20 and heads to Venezuela for a South-South summit. New murder statistics improve slightly, but burglary rates have risen. Four out of five of the World Cup stadiums are expected to be completed next month, but people are more concerned about the soccer team's losing streak. Cell phone company MTN blames the government for a failed merger with an Indian company. South African Airlines shows profits for the first time. And a municipality manager ups the president by marrying four women at once.

Top News: South African President Jacob Zuma delivered his first speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He called for the conclusion of the Doha round of trade negotiations and urgent action on climate change, and reiterated South Africa’s call for a lifting of economic sanctions on Cuba and the creation of a Palestinian state.


As the head of the only African member of the G20, Zuma followed up on his U.N. appearance with a trip to Pittsburgh where he called on the world to help developing countries weather a financial crisis they played little part in causing but that is affecting them deeply nonetheless.


Zuma rounded up his Americas tour with a participation in an Africa – South America summit in Venezuela. The event, which was aimed at fostering South-South cooperation, was hosted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whom Zuma found “quite talkative” and “full of ideas.”


Zuma was not the only South African official active on the world scene, as Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim held meetings with his Iranian counterparts. The visit to Tehran was meant to enhance bilateral relations with Iran, which is already one of the biggest markets for South African products in the Middle East.


South Africa released its much anticipated crime statistics last week. While the country welcomed a slight decrease in the murder rate, it remains one of the highest in the world with 37 murders per 100,000 people. By comparison, the murder rate in most developed countries is less than 2 per 100,000. More worrisome for South Africans is that other types of violent crimes, such as aggravated house robberies or business robberies, are increasing. This will undoubtedly constitute some food for thought for World Cup organizers as they try to downplay the risk to soccer fans visiting the country for next year’s event.


On the operational front, World Cup construction is on track. Four of the five planned new stadiums for the tournament are expected to be completed by next month. The fifth one, being built in Cape Town, should be ready by December, organizers said. Meanwhile, Danny Jordaan and Irvin Khoza, co-heads of the organizing committee, avoided a potentially disruptive squabble when they both withdrew from the race to become president of the South African Football Federation. World soccer body FIFA, worried that the rivalry might jeopardize the organization of the first World Cup on African soil, had asked for the election to be postponed to next year.


Another source of worry for local soccer fans is the performance level of the Bafana Bafana (the boys), South Africa’s national soccer team. The squad has only managed to beat weaklings New Zealand and Madagascar in its past eight games, and coach Joel Santana is said to be on his way out if his team doesn’t perform in upcoming matches against Norway and Iceland.


The U.S. Embassy and Consulates in South Africa were closed for three days because of an unspecified security threat. There was speculation that the threat emanated from an al-Qaeda splinter group, but U.S. officials did not confirm this.


Zuma appointed Mo Shaik as the new head of South Africa’s secret services. Shaik’s appointment was criticized by opposition parties as he is the brother of Shabir Shaik, a convicted fraudster who was also Zuma’s financial adviser.


Money: Cell phone giants Bharti Airtel of India and MTN of South Africa called off their merger negotiations after regulatory issues in both countries appeared insurmountable. Bharti put the blame for the collapsing talks squarely on the South African government, though South Africa’s treasury department said both companies had decided to end the talks. The $24 billion merger would have created the world’s third-largest cell phone company, based on the number of subscribers, and would have led to the largest single foreign direct investment in South Africa.


South African Airways bucked an industry-wide trend by posting an annual profit of about $52 million, thanks in large part to a refund from Airbus for the cancellation of a previous order. Meanwhile Mango, SAA’s low-cost airline, also reported an annual profit of about $1.4 million. It is the first time the airline has showed profits since it was launched in 2006.


The International Monetary Fund said South Africa is the only country in Africa whose economy is expected to contract this year – by an estimated 2.2 percent. Overall growth for the continent is expected to slow to 1.75 percent from an average of 6 percent over the past five years, the IMF said.


South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said the deficit could reach 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product this year because of falling tax revenue. This would be two times the government’s original estimate.


Elsewhere: In a country where polygamy is legal, Milton Mbhele outperformed even the president by marrying four brides (Zuma has currently three wives) and did so in one single ceremony. Mbhele, the manager for the Indaka Municipality, said he wed all four women at the same time to save costs (the event still cost him close to $20,000.) The cost-saving measure was a prudent move for Mbhele, who was suspended from his position a few days after his wedding for splurging $80,000 of taxpayers’ money on the funeral of the municipality’s mayor in June.