South Africa, Politics

Breakfast: Almost R800. Jacob Zuma speaking to the nation: priceless

By Ranjeni Munusamy 18 May 2012

Richard Mdluli, the violent clashes between Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance, the proposed youth wage subsidy and a possible second term for Jacob Zuma all came up during a business breakfast meeting with the president in Bloemfontein. Pity, then, that these issues were not interrogated and most of South Africa missed it. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

There’s something mildly distasteful about people having to pay The New Age newspaper almost R800 each to sit in the same room as President Jacob Zuma for two and a half hours.

The Gupta family, who own the newspaper, can hardly be blamed for milking their “special friendship” with the president because the business breakfast briefings have been a PR – and cash – coup for them.

The briefings have been going to all the major centres in the country, are televised live by the SABC and are a guaranteed method for the well-heeled to access Zuma – that is, if they book early or have one of the Gupta brothers on speed dial.

The appeal may not just lie in the opportunity to ask the president a question, to which he may or may not provide a comprehensible answer, but also to be seen on national television with the veritable who’s who of the province.

The format allows ordinary people to ask the president questions by calling in or sending a tweet, which Zuma responds to live on air. Other than regular viewers of the SABC’s Morning Live programme, most people are oblivious about this opportunity.

The presidency may have at first agreed to the briefings to show its support for the Gupta-sponsored project and to thumb its nose at other media houses. But by continuing with this “president for hire” scheme, it seems to have escaped the officials of the highest office in the land that Zuma, as an elected representative, has a constitutional obligation to speak to the citizens – for free.

The New Age’s advertisement for Thursday morning’s briefing in Bloemfontein read as follows: “South Africa’s current political landscape has captured the imagination of us all. Join President Jacob Zuma as he briefs the nation on his mid-term review”. It then provides the cost breakdown – there’s a surcharge for kosher and halaal meals – including a group discount if you book for 10 people.

A mid-term review, surely, should have been presented to the entire nation, not just a few eminent business people in Bloemfontein, and not while helping the generous Guptas expand their fortune. Accountability is a fundamental tenet of the Constitution and the citizens of South Africa are entitled to report-backs on the progress of government programmes, particularly election promises.

The president could have presented his mid-term review to Parliament or at a live media briefing, though the latter would probably not be a desired option at present, considering the pile of controversial issues on Zuma’s desk.

If the president wanted to interface with ordinary South Africans while providing this report back, there are a host of methods within the government communications machinery to do so, as well as arranging with the national broadcaster for a simultaneous television and radio phone-in broadcast.

Zuma’s written speech at the briefing was hardly a mid-term review but rather a recap on government’s broad programme of action and assorted current issues on the agenda. The bulk of the speech focused on successes in the security cluster, including improvements in detection and arrest rates by the police.

This provided a convenient backdrop to broach the subject Zuma has been sidestepping for several weeks: Richard Mdluli. While a litany of allegations against the crime intelligence head – ranging from murder, corruption, nepotism and the defrauding of a secret service account – has dominated public discourse, the presidency has avoided engaging on the matter, other than to deny links between Zuma and Mdluli.

Zuma decided to opt for the Thabo Mbeki technique of defending compromised police chiefs by saying there was “no need for alarm on this matter”. When former police commissioner Jackie Selebi faced serious allegations, Mbeki, then president, famously told a group of religious leaders to trust his handling of the matter. Despite Mbeki’s efforts to protect him, Selebi was convicted and jailed. Mbeki has never once explained his betrayal of public confidence.

Risking making the biggest understatement of the year, Zuma said he has been concerned about “recent negative publicity, which fortunately has not impacted on policing work”.

“The minister of police has acted on the matter affecting the police crime intelligence unit and has established a task team to investigate… Let us give the minister of police the space to conclude this matter, assisted by other law-enforcement agencies.”

Zuma didn’t explain that the team established by Nathi Mthethwa was in fact tasked with investigating a possible conspiracy against Mdluli by his peers, not the increasingly serious allegations against the crime intelligence boss, who has been shifted to an unknown post within the police service.

Zuma added that inspector general of intelligence Faith Radebe had the legal mandate of oversight over financial management of crime intelligence.

“Our country has enough instruments to ensure that there is no abuse of power or resources to further any objectives, especially by our intelligence and security services. Our country’s constitution also has very specific provisions in this regard, protecting citizens from possible violations of their rights,” Zuma said.

Because of the staid and unwieldy format of the briefing, Zuma was not interrogated on whether Radebe was in fact investigating all the allegations in the public domain against Mdluli (not that she has the powers to do so) and the veracity of reports that both Radebe and the Hawks came under political pressure to lay off Mdluli.

Considering the gravity of the allegations against Mdluli, the claims that he and Mthethwa are implicated in the matter and the impact the issue is having on society, the president’s response was wholly unsatisfactory.

Zuma was asked to comment on the clash between Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance over the youth wage subsidy in Johannesburg on Tuesday. He condemned the violence and, though he didn’t mention the trade union federation by name, condemned Cosatu’s refusal to accept the DA’s petition on the matter.

He said the youth wage subsidy was being discussed at the National Economic and Development Labour Council and that the debate should be resolved there, rather than on the streets. This matter was also not taken further. Nobody asked and Zuma didn’t say what would happen in the event of a stalemate at Nedlac and whether government would press ahead with the subsidy, despite Cosatu’s strong opposition.

Instead, Zuma was asked obsequious questions like “what makes you get up in the morning” and who his role models were.

A caller from KwaZulu-Natal appealed to the president for help, explaining that her family was in a desperate, poverty-stricken situation. Zuma’s response was that he had a “little foundation” which helped people in desperate need and also asked business people at the breakfast to intervene in such situations.

It seemed to escape the president that he had the entire government machinery at his disposal, including local councillors and officials of the department of social development who could be sent to assess and assist in such situations. Instead, business people attending the breakfast were asked to pledge donations to the president’s private trust.

Those who attended the breakfast and had the opportunity to ask the president questions specific to their area of business didn’t seem to get the answers they were looking for. In response to most questions, Zuma, in his meandering manner, merely acknowledged the problems that were raised. 

One question was raised twice: Would Zuma be standing for a second term as ANC president? Again there was no direct answer but the stock party-sanctioned line that the ANC would decide on people’s deployment. Zuma claimed that he had never wanted to be president in the first place but that the ANC had decided he should be.

He also took a sideswipe at those who declare they want to run for president – read Tokyo Sexwale and Julius Malema – saying this was “unANC” and “undisciplined” behaviour.

The New Age also arranges similar briefings for ministers in Zuma’s Cabinet and, again, people are charged to interact with their elected representatives. Who knew democracy could be sold for the bargain-basement price of R792.30? DM


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