President Jacob Zuma is blamed for so much of what goes wrong in our daily national life that sometimes he can appear almost spectral; not quite real - almost, perhaps, super-human. So it’s always interesting when you get up close, when you’re in a room together. Usually, the pesky hacks are kept in their place, far away from any opportunities to ask questions. But, with Thursday night’s date with Parliament and Julius Malema looming, not to mention load-shedding, and more questions about Zuma’s handling of the security cluster, someone, somewhere, thought it would be a good idea for Zuma to spend his Sunday afternoon taking questions in a lunch for “media editors”. Whoever that was, they might get a raise on Monday. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
If there is one certainty about the Zuma Administration, it’s that you will always get oxtail for lunch at the Presidential guesthouse. And it will always be good. Sunday’s lunch was no exception. Various media personalities arrived, gossiped, joked, and ate for a while, before Zuma himself walked in. The man looks healthy and fit. He’s lost a bit of weight perhaps, but there is certainly none of the lack of energy that marked him just after last year’s elections. So he and we, joking and smiling, were finally ushered into the room next door, where the business of briefing was to be conducted.
After the usual pleasantries, the welcome, the thank you for your time, and a brief discussion on international issues (Davos went well for us and despite what you may think of him, the new African Union Chair is running meetings to time), we all got down to business.
What, Mr President, asked Ferial Haffajee, will you do if Julius Malema interrupts your State of the Nation Address? As every hack tapped the tweet icon, he gave what is, of course, the correct answer. “I will be guided by the Speaker.” She interprets the rules of Parliament. And all MPs should honour the directions given to them by the Speaker.
Haffajee followed up, “Are you nervous?”
“No, I’ve never been nervous in my life”.
It was a rare glimpse of Zuma the politician, giving the right answer, having a dig, defusing the situation, and coming out the victor all at once. Later on, he suggested that the EFF had promised to go to Parliament to misbehave, and they were doing just that. But that in the end, they would have to start toeing the line at some point.
Pretty soon after that, we went on to the issue that has perhaps been worrying people of South Africa more than anything else, the instability and suspensions and reinstatements at the Hawks, and SARS. Zuma didn’t attempt to bluff it out: “In any country you would be worried…you don’t want structures like SARS and the Hawks to have problems, therefore if they have problems, you have to be worried.” But, of course, they are being managed, and “the situation is not out of control, it is under control”.
If you immediately thought “yes, yours” to that last comment, congratulations, you are a confirmed cynic.
Zuma was perhaps at his best, and most thoughtful, when asked about foreign nationals in a discussion that turned to race. He says that South Africa does not have a “foreign national problem. We may have a problem of people who break the law.” He went on to mention specifically the foreigner who allegedly shot and killed a teenager in Soweto, in the incident that led to the xenophobic/rampant criminality attacks three weeks ago. But he took great care to point out that if a South African had done the same thing, that would also be a crime.
That led to a question about the protests in Malamulele, where people are demanding a separate council for a specific ethnic and language group. This, says Zuma, cannot be accepted: “Dividing people according to their kind can never be allowed, it is a dangerous thing…”
Later, he was asked about what appears to be an increasingly angry conversation we’ve been having about race. You know, Zelda la Grange, the wearing of party colours, the release of Eugene de Kock, the awful, terrible, horrific attack on a black Northern Cape boy by a bunch of white boys. Zuma cleared his throat for the soundbite:
“We don’t want to look at our colours and then understand who we are. We are what we are with our different colours. We believe that our diversity is in fact our biggest strength as a nation.”
On one level it may all sound a little 1994, a little Madiba magic. But, in these complicated days of transformation post-transition, it’s worth remembering how powerful these words are, and how important it is to say them. The fact that Zuma made sure to say them, and to say them properly, to make sure his message was understood is testament to his clear belief in it. Not for him the immediate labelling of someone by their race that we’ve seen on Twitter so much in the last few months. It’s also worth remembering that Zuma is from the generation of the ANC that made non-racialism so important.
Also, when it comes what used to be called “race relations”, Zuma has a very good track record. There has been very little use of his megaphone to label along racial lines. If he ever pulls out the race card, it’s when he’s under extreme pressure, and at no other time. Certainly, one does not get the same vibe from him that Mbeki sometimes gave off during press conferences.
However, where Zuma did feel the pressure, was when he was asked about Nkandla. This issue has clearly managed to get under his skin. He looked slightly frustrated when he explained that he disagreed with the Public Protector’s findings on the government money spent there:
“And I’ve never seen reason why that recommendation came. I never decided, I never called anyone, I never decided, look I want these ones…”
He’s also clearly angry at the way the media has portrayed Nkandla:
“At the top there, there’s a clinic, which belongs to government. It’s always allocated as part of me, it’s the huge kind of thing. It’s unfair, no investigative journalist has gone back to see if this is not clear. Even if I say as I’m saying it here, you will not report it, because it’s nice to write about Nkandla.”
(Well, Mr President, we may have to disagree here. It seems pretty clear that instructions went from you to the architect Minenhle Makhanya, and he then supervised the construction from there. Certainly, he was appointed by you, and that must mean you have to carry a large part of this very expensive can. And, bluntly, it seems much of the country disagrees with you too.)
Speaking of which, we also have to take issue with Zuma’s comments about Eskom and load-shedding. “If the blame is solely to government, to say this government is a failure, there is no leadership, that is why there is load shedding, is the wrong answer to the question.” That was followed by a claim that we’ve never had enough electricity because back then (and you do known when, right) most groups didn’t get power. Oh dear. Do we have to do this again? It’s in the 1998 White Paper on Electricity Policy which predicted we would run out at the end of 2007. Certainly, when it comes to predicting power cuts, the ANC has a good story to tell. Certainly a much better story than the one about what have they done about the warning not becoming a reality.
All in all, the sheer presence of Zuma the person is likely to have achieved what this lunch was probably really set up to achieve – the framing of the narrative that could be so important this Sona week. It posits Zuma as the establishment, the person in charge, the person you can, or should, trust. But it probably also, for the first time in a while, humanised Zuma in a way that could be important. Just his willingness to take questions, and to really engage with them, is perhaps a breath of fresh air. While this kind of encounter with journalists is always a gamble, this one probably paid off.
If Malema does his worst on Thursday, Zuma is likely to look very much like the adult, and Malema the angry destructive teenager; such are the benefits of a good media campaign. It looks like some of the people surrounding him are starting to appreciate that reality. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (C) talks during his meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 4, 2014. REUTERS/Wang Zhao/Pool