One doesn’t really go into a policy briefing with President Jacob Zuma expecting much. And yet, Thursday's performance offered some interesting nuggets of the man and his moment in presidential life.
Call us jaded if you like, but the memory of this year’s state of the nation address is too fresh in the mind, so is his first speech as president of the ANC, or pretty much anything he’s ever really said in public, in English, on policy. Well, there were no huge surprises in the Zuma’s post-lekgotla briefing on Thursday. These big meetings with all the ministers, premiers (yes, her too) and directors general have become a biannual tradition. Supposedly, they’re a time to reflect and come up with new policies.
Well, blow us over with a feather if there was a lot of general talk, but no real hard and fast targets. It’s funny (peculiar) how Zuma has always said he wants measurable targets, that his ministers must promise to deliver and then be marked on how they actually do it. But when he speaks, it’s always a bit wishy-washy.
Take this for example: “One of the targets we have set ourselves is to positively impact on the quality of life of 400,000 households in informal settlements by 2014, by upgrading them, but providing them with security of tenure, and access to essential services in sites which are close to economic and social amenities.” Are we being unfair when we ask, how are you going to upgrade them, with running water, working electrical sockets? And what’s with the “close to economic and social amenities”, is that just a loophole in case things go wrong. And yes, we hear the cynics in the corner who think it’s all a plot to weaken Tokyo.
Education is not much better. “There will be a drive to ensure teachers are in class, teaching, for the allotted time. The delivery agreement has been negotiated with all stakeholders, the provinces and the trade unions.” Really? Didn’t Sadtu hold meetings with teachers just last week, ensuring Soweto schools were brought to a standstill? Are we on the same planet?
There are some interesting developments though. Zuma says there’ll be an economic lekgotla. Business, the unions and government will get together to work out how to create jobs. If you’re in business and favour a strong rand, you may just get outvoted in that one. Sit next to Pravin and Trevor, you’ll need their protection. But Zuma does have some sensible things to say on jobs. It’s obvious he’s really upset at the high number of young people with skills, who don’t have experience and who are unemployed. He went on about this at some length. He genuinely feels angry and upset at this. It’s possible this is just a riposte to Cosatu’s strong criticism of his plans in his state of the nation address to allow employers to sack younger workers more easily. But there is some nuance; he knows “we have a first-world economy, very high, where you need skills to work there, and we have a third-world economy where there are so many people without jobs”. It’s a different take on Thabo Mbeki’s “two South Africas”, but it doesn’t have the anger and sneer that used to come with it.
Zuma has never really been comfortable talking about matters economic. In fact, we don’t think we’ve ever seen him take questions on the economy. But he’s grown stronger in the meantime. When asked about the rand, and its strength, he was sensible, “We haven’t taken a decision on that, but it’s something we’re discussing”. Normally the country’s big decisions are taken at Esselen Park meeting of the national executive committee but it seems business will not be left out of this one. Zuma’s intent on taking the whole country with him on the rand, no matter where the debate ends.
That’s all the good policy stuff, but what about, uhm, the politics? Well, don’t expect a reshuffle soon. Zuma says he doesn’t know where these “rumours come from”. Hmm, Mr President, there’s been talk about this from within government and ANC circles for some time. It’s not a media creation. But he says you only have a “reshuffle” when something happens. Um, no, most democracies have reshuffles when the balance of power in the ruling party changes, or when someone really cocks things up. But we know from past experience, that you really, really, really have to cock something up in this government for you to face any consequences. Think Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqkula at home affairs, or any of the clutch of people who let the Eskom fiascohappen.
But the really interesting question was about communication minister Siphiwe Nyanda. The retired general with a full-time job and a ministerial portfolio on the side. You know, the one whose company won the Transnet contract that was signed off by Siyabonga Gama, who was fired in the process. Well, you didn’t really expect any movement there did you? The answer, when it came, was, “I don’t think we can jump to any conclusions before any investigation. It is out of order to say there is an allegation and then punishment”. That seems to rhyme with “innocent until proven guilty to us”. But with Zuma’s history, it’s not as though he can say anything else.
The real story is he’s probably too weak to really hold a reshuffle now. And he took a lot of time to balance the various tripartite alliance forces last time, so he probably couldn’t do a better job now.
It’s a difficult job, being president. No real-life experience can prepare you for it. And sometimes the greatest are the ones who spent 27 years mining a lime quarry, sometimes the worst are the ones who spent their lives learning politics and policies all their lives. But there are some skills one can learn that will help. Dealing with the media is one of them. And Jacob Zuma is definitely getting better. He’s more assertive, actually trying to answer questions directly rather than just talking around the point.
But there was a moment when the mask slipped, and slipped badly. Moffet Mofokeng from the City Press, a mild-mannered, very experienced, and very polite reporter asked simply, “Mr President, the movements in your office, can you give us an update on them?” No hostility, no malice, no agenda. Just a request for information. Zuma became a different person. He leant forward as far as the lectern would allow, “The problem with you guys”, he said, “is that you discuss matters that are not relevant to you, the discussions are confidential, we should end the matter there. Don’t go to speculation, even though that’s your right.”
He stopped there. And caught himself. There was a definite pause, then that peculiar grunt he makes whenever under pressure, and he laughed. And ended with, “you’re just trying to make matters confidential not confidential.”
It was a very odd moment. For an instant, one got a hint of the steel beneath that famous smile. And a fundamental misunderstanding of who’s more important, the government or the people.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma answers a journalist’s question after his meeting with his Algerian counterpart Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the presidential palace in Algiers May 25, 2010. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra