Jacob Zuma showed an emotional side today, talking about how the death of innocent civilians makes him angry – and justifies taking strong action (read: shoot) against armed criminals.
The President officially launched his hotline today, and while that sounds like old news because it is, he broke from his prepared script in dramatic fashion. “This issue of crime, no one knows what to do about it” he started, “when innocent people are killed, it makes me burn with anger, how as a nation can we let police die with their rights, while criminals walk away with their rights?”. We’ve seen Zuma talk about crime before, we’ve seen the phrase “shoot to kill” before, but we’ve never seen him so angry about it.
And he’s going to act on it. “Guns are the problem, almost everyone has a gun, and when someone gets a gun in his hand he becomes a hero, even if he’s very cowardly.” Cue comments, still off the cuff, about conversations he’s going to have with opposition leaders, and in government, about more gun control. He hit more emotional buttons, talking about the death of Captain Charl Scheepers, a police officer killed on Sunday, after thrice telling armed criminals to put down their weapons. Zuma called him an “excellent officer”, a phrase his family will no doubt remember for some time.
What was missing from his comments was the phrase “shoot to kill”. It’s possible someone in the Union Buildings is beginning to have second thoughts about how to spin this. However, looking back to his mass meeting with police commanders last week, it’s clear what he really means; if a police officer sees a person holding a gun in his hand and using it in a threatening manner, shoot him. And don’t worry about aiming for the legs.
Zuma knows this will play well with the general public. What will be more difficult, is the gun lobby itself. They’re already furious with the current gun-owners legislation, and have a well-informed lawyer in their leader Martin Hood. They will not go down any further without a fight. Expect this one to go to Constitution Hill.
Zuma also wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to his hotline. This has been laughed off as a public relations exercise by much of the media. But for him, it has clear resonance. He spoke at length about examples of people who it had already helped. There was the woman from Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape who’d fled to Kokstad, because her husband had died and the local priest was after the money. After the hotline got on to the case, provincial officials intervened, and Zuma actually made contact with her to check she was okay. He spoke movingly about how one hotline operator feared that a person who’d called her was going to take his own life, because he couldn’t pay his school fees. Zuma referred to the person whose life “was torn apart by home affairs” in Durban, who then killed himself, because his ID book was ripped up. Zuma glanced tellingly at Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma while he spoke. In the end, the young man was able to stay in school, a fact that must mean a lot to man who was unable to do the same.
Interestingly, Zuma also spoke about how the media must be “recognized and appreciated” for helping people who came asking for assistance. But he says it’s not the job of journalists to help people, it’s the job of government workers to do that.
Over the last few weeks we’ve seen nervous Zuma, Presidential Zuma and campaigning Zuma. Today, for the first time, we got the feeling that he had really been touched by the plight of the people who depend on him. It’s easy to be cynical at this, to laugh off the hotline. But for the President, and the people it could help, it matters.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is EWN reporter, www.ewn.co.za)