Politics

Guess who came to The New Age breakfast?

By Stephen Grootes 4 October 2011

Leaders in managed democracies don’t generally allow themselves to appear in public in unmanaged situations. It’s undignified to actually have to answer questions that matter. We are not in one of those – a managed democracy, that is. But it’s a sign of how close we’re coming that President Jacob Zuma generally doesn’t allow himself to get too close to the people in unscripted situations nowadays (Mac, if you’re reading this, don’t panic, we’re going to be very nice about Mr Zuma in a moment). And you would have thought a breakfast hosted by The New Age newspaper and the SABC would be as close to Pyongyang-style politics as we would get. Strangely enough, you’d be wrong. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

As anyone who watched the Judicial Service Commission hearing of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng will know, your choice of chairman matters. It’s about pushing and protecting. A question about say, nationalisation, can turn into your average “it’s not government policy” sound bite, or into a real Malema-fest. In this case it was Talk Radio 702’s Bruce Whitfield who did most of the pushing (Stephen, seriously, don’t you like, you know, work with him. Haven’t you known him for years? Stop it! – Ed). The SABC’s Peter Ndoro was with him, but Whitfield lived up to his promise, that if Ndoro played good cop, he’d be “the other guy”.

But Zuma is pretty good when his back is against the wall. Take the question about whether he’s indecisive when acting against corruption. Actually, “I have signed more proclamations” to start investigations “than anyone else, than at any other time”. It’s a good point. You can sense the Mac Maharaj language in the air. And it has the happy power of being true. And, to be fair, Zuma has actually done something on this issue, when often we haven’t expected him to.

Then there’s Julius Malema. We all know that the two can’t stand each other, that everyone thinks Malema is really more powerful and, of course, Zuma is, perhaps, using the ANC’s disciplinary machinery to put a stop to all that. Zuma was emphatic, “Malema is not in charge, the ANC is in charge, the government is in charge…we have controlled Malema all the time and when we thought he was getting out of control we took action”. It certainly makes Zuma look like the MacDaddy of our politics that he could still turn out to be.  And there’s a cunning twist to the usual answer on nationalisation. Instead of just the “we’re still discussing it, it’s not policy” line, there’s now the “we’re a democracy, in a democracy we debate issues, and if we close down this debate people will accuse us of being an autocracy”. Nice one, Mac.

My perennial question, about the policy lock in the ANC was put to the President as “why does it take so long to formulate policy in South Africa”. The answer was a paraphrase of – of all people – Winston Churchill. “Democracy,” says Zuma, “is time consuming, it is expensive. But it is still the best system”. Indeed it is. But the analysis paralysis in the ANC is not necessarily the best thing for all of us. Anyway, that’s a debate we’ll have again another day.

Then we have the two big issues pending in the Presidential in-tray. The terms of reference for the arms deal inquiry and Bheki Cele – or if you prefer the long-hand, the Public Protector’s report into the police headquarters lease deal. On the arms deal, Zuma, after a lot of prodding from Viljoenskroon’s most famous son, Whitfield, said he would release the terms within the next two weeks. Clearly the lawyers are hard at working narrowing down those terms as much as humanly possible. And once those terms have been accepted by those who matter (Zuma, Gwede Mantashe, Jeff Radebe and a couple of others), he will have to find someone who would actually chair the whole thing. And they will have to accept those terms too.

On the Public Protector’s report, Zuma gave a spirited defence of his actions so far. “In government, there are systems, without them, you don’t have a government”, he said. The point he’s making is that he has to do this one by the book. He doesn’t want to suspend Cele as National Police Commissioner, and cock it up. We all know how it will all end up in court anyway. So I’m going to take a view contrary to much of the commentariat and say let’s give the man some space. We don’t need another three years to go by to find that a court has ruled the whole process needs to start again (there Mac…happier?).

There was also a question about the size of government. In a way, it’s a very American question, the essential difference between Democrats and Republicans is supposed to be the size of government they would like. Here, it’s different. But government has been growing; it’s got more ministers and departments, and thus more PAs, assistants, bodyguards, Mercs and BMWs than ever before. You wouldn’t expect a CEO to want his company to be smaller than it is would you? And thus it is with Zuma. He thinks that with the challenges we face, “for us to deliver, we need this machinery”.

All in all, Zuma didn’t do too badly. But there is one point where we really need to take issue with him. Whitfield put the question to him, originally posed by scenarios guru Clem Sunter, about jobs. The point is that instead of focusing on “jobs, jobs, jobs”, we should be looking at the harder-to-say-fast but more important “enterprises, enterprises, enterprises”. In other words, get small companies going, and everything else will follow. Oh dear. Zuma just didn’t get it. Whether it was a willful and ideological misconstruing of the point, or he just missed it, I can’t say. There was some waffle about how yes, of course, we want more companies, and more jobs, and we have set up jobs funds. Then there was a “we can’t change the tone of the debate, it’s about jobs and enterprises”. But what’s missing is that for there to be more “jobs”, “enterprises” need to be front and centre first. Just no concept that actually what makes jobs is that someone begs credit from a bank, employs people, and doesn’t sleep for at least the first year through sheer fear. You just don’t get an appreciation from the President that it’s filthy capitalists who read “proudly capitalist” websites that generate jobs for millions of people. They create wealth in the process as well.

But the biggest disappointment was over the Dalai Lama. It’s a hot issue. Very much the kind of story someone with the democratic tendencies of Vladimir Putin would want to avoid. It came from an interesting source: Jay Naidoo, of all people. He’s the former general-secretary of that little organisation called Cosatu. He put it through the SABC presenters to the actual presenters to Zuma. It hadn’t lost its power by then because of the way he put it: “Why is government allowing itself to be bullied by China?” The answer was pathetic. “I don’t think it’s fair that you ask me that question.” Yes really. Because “we have departments” that are dealing with that. Oh come on Mr President! Seriously, just grow up a little. The worst part of that answer is not that it’s just unbecoming of a President to cry about being hurt in the rough and tumble of politics. It’s that he hadn’t prepped for that question. Isn’t that what Mac Maharaj is for? Well, unless they have differing views perhaps?

To get Zuma at his absolute best, you need to catch him speaking unscripted in Zulu. At his worst, it’s usually scripted, in English. That’s partially due to how his speeches are written, although they may slowly be getting better. But if you get Zuma to actually engage, off the defensive and onto the offensive – taking question, answer, question, answer rather than a whole barrage of questions and then a waffly meringue hodgepodge of an answer – you get to see a much better side of him. He can still, as The Economist once put it, be “policy light” but you get to see the brain at work. He’s not ever going to be great on economics, not every leader is. But he can be really good when he wants to be. I hope The New Age and the SABC have him to breakfast more often. DM



Photo: REUTERS

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