South Africa

Step out of the bubble and meet the real world, Mr President

By Ranjeni Munusamy 17 February 2014

By the way President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address last week was scripted and managed, it seems evident that there was no attempt to reach out to detractors. It appears as if Zuma, the Presidency and the ANC have given up on trying to win over the critics – and the president certainly has many. The approach seems to be to keep their loyal supporters onside and write off those who demand answers and accountability from Zuma and the ANC. This must be difficult for a person who traded on mass popularity. It is also quite a gamble in a turbulent election year. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

The one major difference between the 2013 State of the Nation address and the one delivered on Thursday – other than Oscar Pistorius’s shooting of Reeva Steenkamp looming over it – was that the direct engagement with ordinary people was dropped.

Last year, President Zuma made a point of acknowledging ordinary people in the speech, including top grade 12 learner, Madikgetho Komane, from Sekhukhune district in Limpopo, who was his special guest sitting in the gallery. As it was the centenary of the 1913 Land Act, he had also invited Nomhlangano Beauty Mkhize, a veteran who, together with her husband Saul Mkhize, led the struggle against forced removals in Driefontein and Daggaskraal.

Zuma spoke of a message he received on Facebook from Thulani Zondi who had raised concerns about the slow pace of land redistribution. He said he received several messages via email, Twitter and Facebook, and had also spent time with Grade 12 learners who shared their views on what should be contained in the speech. “I found the inputs very informative and enriching,” Zuma said.

Of course, that was all PR, but it was good PR. It connected Zuma to ordinary citizens and gave the impression that he was responsive to what people were saying and thinking. State of the Nation addresses are by their nature long and tedious affairs, with a bombardment of facts and statistics which are difficult to digest. Acknowledging a few excited faces in the gallery is a clever way to break the tedium and allow ordinary people to be recognised by the Number One citizen for their achievements and contributions.

This year Zuma acknowledged the families of struggle stalwarts and also some luminaries in the gallery. But by and large, the speech was a scorecard of the ANC and his administration’s achievements with no direct engagement with his wider audience.

The Zuma administration had changed the timeslot for State of the Nation speeches from Friday mornings to Thursday evenings so that more people could watch him speak and get the information directly from him, rather than media reports on the speech. So Zuma is well aware that people around the country are watching him and that he is not just speaking to the people in the House. Yet there was little effort to connect to the people he is speaking to, especially when his public image is under siege and he is looking for the public to put their trust in his hands for another term in office.

While speaking liberally about the achievements of the past five years, Zuma avoided any reference to personal criticism of his leadership or scandals that plagued his presidency. While the State of the Nation is not really the place to fight fires, Zuma could have used the event to acknowledge some of the problems that beset his presidency and give people the impression that he would do better to make sure they were not repeated.

But Zuma appeared only to be speaking to people who already supported him and the ANC, not those who have doubts about his leadership, were disappointed by him or the ANC government, or opposition supporters. As president you are required to rise above the party you represent and speak to the nation – including those who don’t like you and are campaigning against you. This is a requirement of all functioning democracies.

Zuma and his communicators in the presidency however seem to have written off their critics and are focusing on speaking to the core of ANC supporters undeterred by the scandals and hurdles during the president’s term in office.

This is also evident by the choice of media interviews the presidency has been granting, with only journalists perceived to be amenable being granted access to the president.

However, in an interview with eNCA screened on Sunday night, Zuma’s pressure under the weight of public criticism was visible. The public outrage over the taxpayer-funded upgrades has obviously rattled his otherwise impervious nature. Zuma said in various interviews over the past week that it was “unfair” that pictures of his home were constantly featured in media reports. He insisted that there has been an inaccurate picture of the costs projected in the media. However, he would not give a detailed account of his own involvement in the upgrades, saying he could not comment on the matter until the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report was released.

In response to persistent questions from eNCA’s Dan Moyane about the upgrades at his Nkandla residence, Zuma said that as president, one did not ask about or debate security matters. “I am not supposed to know,” Zuma said. He claimed that the only thing he questioned was the construction of one little window in his bedroom, which he said made it seem like a prison cell.

Zuma said he would abide by the Public Protector’s findings on Nkandla “unless the findings are not accurate”. It is unclear what this means but it could indicate Zuma’s intention to contest the findings in Madonsela’s report – of which he has already seen a draft version. It could also mean that the Public Protector’s report will be measured against that of the government task team investigation, which appears to be the preferred version of events. Zuma made a point of saying in the eNCA interview that it was not him being investigated but the upgrades.

In the coming months, particularly after Madonsela’s report has been released, Zuma will find it even more difficult to navigate around the issue of Nkandla. It will probably be up to his spokesman in the presidency Mac Maharaj, the Government Communications and Information System, the security cluster ministers as well as the ANC to manage the fallout and bear the brunt of the findings.

In the interview with Moyane, Zuma said stepping down from his position was the last thing on his mind. He said he did not elect himself and would therefore continue serving as president until the ANC decided otherwise. Zuma also said that if the ANC received below 60% of the vote in the May elections, he could not take the responsibility alone, but that the party collective should do so.

After the booing incident at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at FNB Stadium, it is clear that Zuma’s confidence took a knock and that he is more circumspect about his public engagements. But this is an untenable approach in an election year, and Zuma will have to emerge from behind the firewall to engage the people he wants to put a cross next to his picture on the ballot paper.

While the president chose to say what he wanted to whom he wanted in the State of the Nation address, he cannot restrict his access and messaging on the election trail. As the face of the ANC’s election campaign, he can no longer be sheltered from the public glare and questioning.

This is a noisy nation with a lot to say. The test of a good leader is one who listens to all voices, not just those who sing their praises. If Zuma wants to represent this nation for another five years, he has to hear what it has to say, even when the voices are screaming insults and booing. Without a protective shield of the government and ANC officials and a bubble created by the ever-growing pliable parts of the SA media, he may find the experience harrowing and enlightening at the same time. DM

Photo by Reuters.

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