When the going gets tough, who you gonna re-call? Your spin doctor, of course. Because the problem can’t possibly be you; it must be the way people see you.
The immediate result of a change in spin doctor has been a dramatic change in President Jacob Zuma’s profile. No longer the party mediator; definitely not the policy wonk; not so much the international statesman. Instead we get the “people’s president”, out there among the people, kissing babies. (Well, not quite, but pretty close.)
The ANC has announced that the presidency has called in ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa, in what has been called alternately as a “desperation measure” and a “change of tactics” by media people who follow him. The move follows a bleak period for Zuma, starting with revelations about a new baby with the daughter of a different friend to a near-disastrous state visit to the UK which achieved only more humiliation. The change of spin doctor also follows some fractiousness in his office, with ANC stalwart Jesse Duarte threatening to resign, but then apparently holding off.
The blame for Zuma’s rapid decline in the eyes of the cognoscenti must partly fall on the head of Vusi Mona, whose appointment was greeted with disbelief in the SA press, following the near disastrous editorship of City Press and public humiliation he experienced at hands of Bulelani Nqcuka’s lawyer, Kessie Naidu, during the Hefer Commission.
Yet Zuma’s response to his plunge in popularity reflects well on his sense of where the popular mind rests – and yet again contrasts him with his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who never had an inkling of the decline in his popularity within or outside the party. According to the Times, Mona and presidential spokesman Vincent Magwenya have come under fire after they kept mum for three days as public outrage grew after the Sunday Times broke the news of Zuma’s latest illegitimate baby.
Zuma’s actual apology was issued by Kodwa, who presumably advised Zuma that stonewalling on the issue was harming his reputation.
The Times argues that Mona and Magwenya erred again during the UK state visit when they failed to advise Zuma to ignore comments by a Daily Mail senior columnist who called him “a buffoon” and a “bigot”. Zuma reacted with rage, saying the British believed Africans to be barbaric, great words to use just before what was supposed to be a great display of eternal friendship between two countries.
Upon his return from the UK Zuma immediately gave a host of interviews to key political journalists, most of which weren’t particularly filled with newsworthy value, but which symbolically demonstrated his approach to crises – which is “get out there”.
The approach was even more apparent in his visit to Marabstad on Friday and Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital on Tuesday. The later was ostensibly to take part in a piece of political theatre worthy of a soap-opera: he visited the hospital apparently to thank the doctors who tried in vain to save baby Ashleigh Louw (born with her heart outside her body). Whatever the case, the visits went well, and he was mobbed by supporters wherever he went, which is just the type of images he needs to cement his position within the party.
Yet, the way events have unfolded has been instructive in other ways about Zuma’s political instincts, and particularly his sense that problems facing the presidency have less to do with him or his actions, and much more with the way he is perceived by others.
His view of “ethics” as a matter of cultural sensitivity and his criticism of the British for not having it, was perhaps the most revealing part about the character of a man who remains, like the good intelligence operative that he is, closed to public eye.
No doubt, some of his problems result from his succession of spin doctors’ failures, but many others are a consequence of his own misjudgements. His decision, for example, to try to get sanctions against Zimbabwe removed by a weak British prime minister about to fight an election against a centre-right candidate, was almost unfathomable.
As Allister Sparks points out in a commentary piece in Business Day, there are no sanctions against Zimbabwe. There are only targeted sanctions against 200 individuals and nine companies known to be the prime evils who have looted the land and its resources, impoverished the people and committed crimes against humanity.
“There is no way Brown or any other EU leader was going to condone those despicable crimes, in effect revoke Europe’s labelling of them as immoral and unacceptable, when President Robert Mugabe and his cohorts have done nothing to deserve such a reprieve.
“If Zuma thought he could sweeten Mugabe by going in to bat for him in London, then he is even more naive than Mbeki. Mugabe is an inveterate hawk who eats softies for breakfast,” Sparks writes.
Zuma is currently in Zimbabwe, yet he has now not only painted himself as ineffectual at winning concessions from the British, but as a tactical bungler.
From Richard Nixon to Mikhail Gorbachev, from George Bush to Gordon Brown, unsuccessful politicians all share a single devastating characteristic: They think their problems emanate from “poor image management”.
The reason they think that is because the only alternative explanation is that the problem really lies with them. And that would be a thought more frightening than death.
By Tim Cohen
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma walks with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at Harare International airport, March 16, 2010. Zuma is in the country for a three-day state visit to try and solve a deadlock on outstanding issues in Zimbabwe’s unity government between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
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