It was the British Nuremburg prosecutor Lord Shawcross who said, “the job of an opposition is to oppose”. He was famously billed as the cleverest prime minister Britain never had, and it was because of his refusal to be forced to oppose even those ideas he personally liked that he never went into politics. We’ve been reminded of this in the reaction to President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address.
It’s the biggest political bunfight of the year. Just after the president steps down from the podium in the National Assembly, a flood of journalists moves up and down in a roped-off area. As the politicians come out, they sweep into this massive movement of questioning. It’s quite fun, in a way. But it also reduces what could be a wonderfully intelligent discourse, a to-ing and fro-ing of argument, an interrogation of policies and politics, into the quest for the perfect soundbite. Of course, that means those who speak have planned well before the speech. It is us, the media, that reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. Thus, in present day South Africa, reporting is about the deep divisions in our politics.
Most people have made up their minds about Jacob Zuma by now. The opposition can’t stand him, and the ANC (generally) loves him. And that’s what we saw on the steps of the parliamentary precinct last night. The DA knows it has to lead this charge, and out of the National Assembly building in the reddest of red ball gowns, looking as youthful as ever, swept Helen Zille. Her tall strapping young male aide, Geordin Hill-Lewis, held her clutch bag tightly, as he shepherded her from microphone to microphone. And what she said was predictable. Zuma was short on policy, big on emotion. And those ideas she did like had been nicked from her party anyway.
It’s all good political stuff that, an old trick. If you do like it, cry foul; it may be true, it may not, but you can rest assured no one’s ever going to prove it either way. At least Zille, ever nimble, is able to talk about policy on the hop.
Cope and the ACDP felt the strong urge to put the boot in over Zuma’s private life. Bo-o-oring. That’s so last week. There are times this reporter wished Mbhazima Shilowa would just take over. He can think on his feet. Mvume Dandala, well, looks a little pained when he flashes his big smile and hits the play button on his pre-planned soundbite. And he doesn’t have that ability to sum up major policy in a quick word or two either, so he just talks, and talks, and talks. And then, he talks.
IFP leader Mangosutho Buthelezi is also one of those who has the ability to talk for longish periods. But his voice isn’t what it was, he’s very softly spoken now. And he’s wearing sunglasses, even when the sun is well over the yardarm. He’s getting on, and surely some in his party must start to ask some questions about Inkatha’s succession policy. He does have what Dandala lacks though, that ability to penetrate through the guff of a speech, and react to the nub of it. And, quite rightly, he put his finger on a lack of hard policy on crime.
In South Africa it is true that the reaction to a speech by Zuma tells you a lot about the person speaking. We also know that what we have said about his speech so far may appear a little out of kilter with some of the generally received reaction. However, we still hold that Zuma did actually make some policy pronouncements. Coming from a man who hardly ever talks about policy, we believe that’s progress and should be celebrated.
The focus now moves to Zuma’s ministers. They will hold the traditional cluster briefings over the next few weeks. Ideally, they will tell us what’s really going to happen. However, it’s important they be held to account properly, that they don’t get away with too many wishy-washy answers.
One other aspect; there’s been some criticism that Zuma didn’t give proper direction, a way forward for the nation. We think, on reflection, that that’s partially true. It’s a function of the fact that he’s holding together such a broad church. It’s what happens when a leader is in a weakened position and his political capital balance in the red. He can’t push too strongly, because he will alienate some faction or other. Will this consign us to drift for the rest of his ANC term? Will it be his only ANC term? Perhaps. But the most interesting reaction to everything last night, came from Zwelinzima Vavi. He was asked, directly, whether Cosatu would back Zuma for a second ANC term. Earlier this week, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini had said yes to the same question. Vavi back-peddled from that furiously. He used the “it’s-not-yet-time-to-pronounce-on-that” defence.
Something may have shifted somewhere.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)