Why the long face Mr Prez?

2014-05-13 10:00

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President Jacob Zuma has weathered all kinds of storms to be where he is now. As he gets ready for his second term at the helm, he has to earn respect to avoid more damaging scandals such as Nkandla, writes Rapule Tabane

Last week, as US President Barack Obama was meeting White House correspondents for dinner and making self-deprecating remarks about his Kenyan origin, his failed government programmes and his ambiguous relationship with the media, President Jacob Zuma was wearing a stern face, complaining the media was trying to malign him and was making a big noise about issues they claimed were reflective of public concerns.

Speaking at Luthuli House, he was combative and apparently quite upset at either being misunderstood or deliberately being misinterpreted.

But the timing of the outburst, if you can call it that, was strange. It happened at a time when he had completed a relatively successful election campaign. He had been able to override what was expected to be the biggest scandal and strongest hindrance to the ANC campaign – Nkandla.

The ANC election machinery was in full swing and his party campaign looked the smoothest and most effective. The masses had loved him and he looked forward to a good election result.

He should have been grinning away in contentment. But Msholozi was a sore man. So sore to the point he publicly invoked a painful memory of his wife being raped.

The man has come a long way.

Having survived a rape accusation and trial, he rose from there seemingly unscathed. But what probably set the ground for his bulletproof character and rising popularity was when, as deputy president, he was fired by Thabo Mbeki after his financial adviser Schabir Shaik was convicted for fraud and corruption.

Since then, he has survived every scandal he has faced, mostly by being able to evoke a wave of public sympathy and projecting himself as a victim. He beat the incumbent Mbeki for the ANC presidency in 2007 and as ANC leader won the 2009 general elections convincingly.

In 2009, he took charge with renewed confidence, and friends and critics alike felt he should be given a chance. But not long after, another huge scandal broke: he had fathered a child out of wedlock with the child of Orlando Pirates boss Irvin Khoza.

But Zuma also weathered that storm.

President Zuma has fallen just short of demanding that the media treat him more ‘fairly’. Picture: Musa Masilela

It appeared to have rattled his confidence as it broke only a week before his annual state of the nation address, as he delivered one of his weakest speeches.

But over time, he ­­reasserted control by getting rid of three powerful leaders in the intelligence cluster. And through a series of reshuffles, he removed opponents such as Tokyo Sexwale from Cabinet.

By the time of the next ANC conference in Mangaung in 2012, those who sought to remove him were disorganised and divided and their credentials tampered with in such a way he again sailed through effortlessly.

If Polokwane showed the ingenuity and mastery of Zuma’s machine, Mangaung was a reminder of his intelligence background as he cemented his position by getting his own top six and a completely loyal ANC national executive committee.

So as the scandal over his Nkandla residence – which had first been revealed in 2009 – gathered pace in the last few years, so did his hold and control over the party and alliance partners. The opposition saw an opportunity to nail him when they laid a complaint with the Public Protector.

When Public Protector Thuli Madonsela finally tabled her report a month before elections, it was quite damning as it found that his family had unduly benefited from renovations to his homestead in what was supposed to be only state expenditure for security arrangements.

It found that Zuma had an ethical obligation to have asked about the renovations and that he should repay some of the expenses. But it fell short of finding he had deliberately misled Parliament.

Even before the report was released, the ANC and allied structures had long planned to deal with any negative eventualities from the report.

The strategy involved spinning interpretations of the report by means of saying the report found Zuma had done nothing wrong, and government officials who inflated prices would be prosecuted and dealt with harshly.

The other leg involved attacking the credibility of the report and Madonsela by painting her as a tool of the media and opposition parties bent on discrediting Zuma and the ANC.

This week, all indications were that Nkandla had minimal effect on voting patterns as the majority of ANC voters stayed loyal to the party, choosing to artificially separate it from the incumbent.

But his comments, including complaining that the media were unfair and behaved as if he did not have rights, indicate that lack of respect from the “clever blacks” continues to rankle him.

All the 11?million voters who put their “X’s” next to his name appeared to count for little if he continues to be game for cartoons and political commentators. As he starts a new term, Zuma is asking for more respect and circumspection from the media.

But there is a popular saying that respect is earned, not forced.

A new term allows him to start afresh, to avoid more damaging scandals such as Nkandla. It is not impossible to rescue his damaged reputation, other leaders have done it before.

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