Media, Politics

A Day in the Life. Of the President. And the reporter.

By Branko Brkic 4 December 2009

“Woke up, got out of bed,Dragged a comb across my head,Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,And looking up, I noticed I was late”. It’s difficult to think of a person Lennon and McCartney’s words relate less to than President Jacob Zuma. Certainly, he’s an early riser, but we can’t think of anything he’d use a comb for. And as for being late, well, he sets the agenda really. But he had a pretty full diary yesterday, dealing with the economy and the spooks.

There’s nothing quite as splendid as the Presidential Guest House early on a summer morning. Everyone’s up and about, meetings have already started, the sprinklers are going, even the cops at the gate are pretty friendly (going to the extent of occasionally allowing you in without your press card). Once you’ve parked on the lawn under a carefully planted tree, you go through security and into the main hall area. There’s plush carpeting, and, this being the Zuma administration, people are actually pretty friendly to journalists, greeting you by name.

From there it’s into a large holding room that’s been used for all sorts of things, including Mbeki’s last press conference as president. And, once there, it’s time to settle into a deep couch, drink some horribly cheap (but free) chicory and wait. If the press conference involves diplomats or economists, you can wait for some time. Yesterday, it was just an hour and a half.

Eventually, the “Leadership Group of the Framework Response to the Economic Crisis” emerged. As usual, Zwelinzima Vavi’s the easiest to spot, because he towers over everyone else. Pravin Gordhan took a spot in the front row, but didn’t go up to the podium. He was joined by Membathisi Mdladlana, while Jimmy Manyi sat near the back. On the stage were Vavi, Raymond Parsons and a couple of others. Zuma himself sat in the middle until invited to speak.

His administration staff don’t like to take chances, and his statement was clearly prepared much earlier (we quite like that actually, it shows good organisation). The highlights, “While monetary policy has been the subject of robust debate within the leadership group…interest rates have been reduced”, “R11bn has been set aside…to address the impact of the recession.”, “223,568 verified work opportunities have been created”.

Once he’d finished, he sat down, and it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to be answering questions. Only three were allowed because of “time constraints”. Through a strange quirk of fate it fell to Vavi to answer the inevitable question about inflation targeting. He had the grace to burst out laughing, then he was followed by Zuma himself, and pretty much the whole room. After all, he’s the most vigorous proponent of doing away with it, and it’s not that he’s been hiding that fact. In the end he gave a very innocuous “you know that this is being debated” answer.

There really wasn’t much substance to the other answers, and Zuma, it seems, realises that he should leave the nuts and bolts of economics to his well-selected team. During the boring Q and A, he sat in the middle of the small stage, his hands holding the white folder of his speech, displaying his gold and silver wristwatch, looking up at the sky from time to time.

Clearly for him, “Somebody spoke and he went in to a dream”.

He was probably thinking about the intelligence folk he was going to visit; they’re much more his vibe. It was National Intelligence Day yesterday (if you missed the occasion), and that was our next destination.

Asking for directions to the National Intelligence Headquarters doesn’t get you a street address, or anything you can put into a Garmin. But it’s actually pretty easy to find. If you know where it is. And it’s massive, like really stupendously large. There’s a whole set of big buildings, and of course, some of them have radar dishes on top. It’d be pretty boring if they didn’t,I suppose.

Once there, the country’s intelligence glitterati were already outside, braving the sun in their best funereal bib-and-tuckers. It should be an occasion for solemnity, actually, it’s the day when we remember those who have fallen in the service of the country. There’s a big plaque outside, and Zuma laid a wreath upon it. It’s the equivalent of the SAS’s white star board.

It’s fascinating looking at spooks with a microphone in your hand. Just over there is Barry Gilder, the chap who should/shouldn’t be testifying in the Selebi Trial, then there’s Billy Masethla, talking earnestly to someone, as he always does, and hold on, that’s Menzi Simelane. Let’s go say hello, oh, oops, he saw the mike. But Moe Shaik’s coming over to say hello, and to mention how much he’s “missed you all in the media” for the last couple of months. Shaik is always good fun to bump into, he’s perhaps the only South African political person who can be called urbane. He’s also sophisticated and knows exactly what’s going on in the world, and in the media. He’s also pretty funny.

But that doesn’t detract from the $64,000 question. Who in the hell are all these elderly white people? They can’t be old ANC folk, they don’t dress like lefties. Are they from the old days, how did they crack the nod? We have no answers for you there, I’m afraid.

We weren’t allowed into the main compound, journalists and spooks being a fairly volatile mix. But Zuma did give us literally a minute, and said pretty much nothing. However, the text of his speech was circulated. It took a while to read between the lines, but there seem to be two messages. You have to be able to predict violence, like social delivery protests and xenophobic attacks. And we’re gonna change the law around protecting state information.

The first makes complete sense, it’s what the spooks should be concentrating on. The second is more complicated.

One of the things Zuma wants to stop is information peddling. People drawing up reports based on all kinds of information, misinformation and whatever they get from the stranger parts of Google. The kind of thing that can be used against someone in some kind of political struggle. It’s exactly what the “Special Browse Mole Report” was. And Zuma was its subject. It was drawn up by Ivor Powell while he was at the Scorpions. It led to a massive ruckus within the NIA and the ANC, with differing views on whether the information within it (particularly that Zuma’s Polokwane bid was being funded by Brother Leader Gadaffi) was true. In the end, the Zuma side won.

So he wants to put a stop to all that, which is all good and proper. He also wants to look more carefully at protecting state information. That could turn out to be the more interesting suggestion. When it comes to intelligence, and stuff is kept secret, a hell of a lot depends on the actual people themselves. So, protecting state information is one thing, keeping stuff secret that should be made public is obviously another. And it’s up to the spooks themselves. That makes it quite difficult to know what Zuma really wants to do. And even if he and other officials have the best intentions, it’s pretty easy for a law to protect state information to be abused.

But, in the meantime, Zuma spent much of the day with the spies. People he knows and calls comrades. It must have been far more fun than talking about dry old economics, which no one can really do much about anyway.

So ended another day of presidential engagements for Zuma. And this reporter? Driving back to Johannesburg, I couldn’t help but think about the symbiosis that the politician-reporter relation is. Yet, when that door closed, we both retreated to our own lives. And they might as well been light-years apart. Strange.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

Photo: President Zuma attends a lunch during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Port-of-Spain November 28, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Silva


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