South Africa

Dear Mr Zuma, it’s all about credibility

By Stephen Grootes 25 June 2013

As the nation, and the world, await news of Nelson Mandela’s condition, and what could be the final outcome of his stay in hospital, it is slightly inevitable, being the divided country that we are, that our political and chattering classes would have a fight about the communication around Madiba. On Monday President Jacob Zuma was due to address editors at a SANEF meeting. But it quickly became apparent that his speech was going to be overtaken by the international hunger for details on Mandela. With the eyes of the world upon him, Zuma completely missed a magnificent, once in a political lifetime opportunity, to really show the world why he’s the MacDaddy of our politics. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

For leaders of countries that are not considered “world powers”, the times when international networks like CNN or Sky News take your speeches live can be counted on the fingers of one hand. These are the moments when you can use the satellite pulpit that has been offered to you, to great effect. You can suddenly rise above the mundane, the boringly domestic disputes around the Guptas, or the Nkandlas, and be a real international player. You can suddenly go from a garden variety leader, to command the same level of attention as Barack Obama.

And while, on the surface, that may be nice to your political ego, it’s actually fundamentally important. There’s a reason so many leaders like to hobnob with global leaders: it makes them look presidential. When they’re representing their country on the international stage, it makes them look as if they are important. It’s a moment when the power of incumbency really comes into effect: you have the power of being president, you look good and authoritative, and that always gives you a bump in the polls.

Which is why Zuma’s performance on Monday is so hard to understand. Did he not know that he was on CNN? Did no one tell him? Did he know but simply did not care? Did he look at a room that was suddenly full with every local and international journalist in the country and thought that they were actually there to hear his views on the domestic economy, and how the ANC still viewed education as its number one, apex priority? And if he did, did his people not brief him beforehand, and make him realise that actually he really needed to start with the reason CNN was taking his speech?

And let’s not forget, there is nothing more scornful than a producer scorned. The chances of Zuma getting another chance like that will have diminished as a result of this performance.

Several years ago I wrote a piece in which I attempted to explain why Zuma’s prepared speeches, in English, were so poor. The main point was that in our political system, Zuma did not have to be hugely proficient in this type of speech to rise to the top, because we just don’t work like that. In a proportional representational system, it’s the internal party mechanics that matter, and within the ANC, english-language speech-making doesn’t matter that much.

However, as president, there are times when it matters hugely. Can you imagine, for a moment, what Barack Obama or Bill Clinton would have done with the eyes of the world on them, hungry for some kind of emotional sustenance? Something to make them both feel the emotion of the moment, and yet also feel better at the end of it?

Instead, unfortunately, we got an almost robotic delivery, a complete reticence of real engagement with the issue of Madiba, and his health.

There are no doubt some who will read this and claim that somehow culture is to blame: it’s not in “our culture” to speak about someone who is clearly dying. Even if that is the case, it’s simply not good enough. South Africa as a country is changing, and the way it deals with issues like death is changing too. It’s hard to think that culture can be used as an excuse to withhold information.

However, Zuma’s problem is actually bigger than that. It’s much more fundamental. It’s got to do more with his own history, and the country’s view of him.

I argued previously that the ANC has a “Zuma problem”, that people’s perceptions of Zuma have not improved since he became president. However, his recent behaviour, Nkandla (and it’s classification as Top Secret), the Guptas’ airport fetish, the business dealings of his family, the continuing claims that somehow he’s a dictator within the ANC, all of these things go to the heart of his credibility.

And when you look at the credibility of an individual politician, it’s often a good idea to ask the question: Would you buy a used car from this man? The answer will tell you what you need to know. Whether you would buy a used car, sorry, a pre-owned luxury vehicle, from Zuma pretty much determines how you’re going to vote next year.

We know for a fact that the international money markets wouldn’t buy a used car from Zuma Car Sales Inc. And quite frankly, he only has himself to blame. Never mind whether you believe that he was responsible for pushing the rand’s value down earlier this month, the fact is you cannot, as a sitting president, call a special press conference about the economy, and come into the room giggling. And you certainly don’t start a press conference on CNN with Madiba in hospital and giggle again. Even if people do trust you, you give the impression that you don’t take the situation seriously, and that you are not in control.

When Madiba was in Milpark hospital in 2011, things got to the point where Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had to present the “everything’s all right” press conference, because he was trusted. He was, at that point, someone you would buy a used car from. To an extent, some people might still feel more comfortable in a Golf from Motlanthe Motors than the expensive Zuma-mobiles.

Now things have changed, and Motlanthe is in the political cold. That leads to the question of whether the ANC’s current deputy Cyril Ramaphosa is perhaps the one most trusted in the ANC. Perhaps. It’s too early to say.

But the sad fact of the matter is that the real argument around the communication of Madiba’s medical condition, the media’s demand for the doctors to come and answer questions, the fight around whether Madiba waited for forty minutes or more or less for a second ambulance, are really about whether you trust the people in charge of that communication. Mac Maharaj has done an incredibly good job in an impossible situation of managing the information. You’d be hard pressed to find better. The problem is not so much with him.

The problem is about whether we trust his boss, Number One.

And by giggling, Number One has indicated to us that he doesn’t really care whether we trust him or not. DM

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma arrives ahead of addressing editors at the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef)  in Johannesburg June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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