Public relations scramble as president disses Pietermaritzburg

2013-10-23 00:00

LIGHT “ribbing” of other cities — including the capital of his home province — by President Jacob Zuma quickly turned into a public relations nightmare yesterday.

Trying to convince the residents of Gauteng that paying for e-tolls was a good idea, Zuma cracked a few jokes about the state of roads in Pietermaritzburg, Rustenburg and Malawi.

Addressing an ANC manifesto forum attended by students, academics and business people at Wits University in Johannesburg on Monday night, Zuma said the roads are to be tolled to pay back the money borrowed to build freeways to make the economy flow in Johannesburg.

Using humour to drive home his point, Zuma had the audience in stitches when he said Johannesburg was a “serious national city” — unlike Rustenburg or Pietermaritzburg.

“The principle of user pay has to be applied to complement the money government spent [to build the roads]. This is what all economies in the world do. We can’t think like Africans in Africa generally, we’re in Johannesburg.”

Zuma added that the freeway between Johannesburg and Pretoria was “not some national road in Malawi”.

Well, some residents missed the joke.

By midday yesterday, presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj was scrambling to contain the fall-out.

“The Presidency has noted reports in certain media, suggesting that President Jacob Zuma insinuated that Africans were backward … If there has been any such understanding, the answer is ‘no’, that is not what the president meant,” said Maharaj.

Commenting on the perceived slight to Pietermaritzburg, Maharaj told The Witness the president’s comments had been taken out of context.

The president, insisted Maharaj, had meant that people should not look at the Gauteng road from a local point of view; they needed to look at it from the national perspective. “The Gauteng roads are important in that they are the heartbeat of our economy, our strategy to create employment … the remarks were meant in that context, it was never meant to be derogatory.”

In terms of the mention of Pietermaritzburg by Zuma, IFP leader Dolo Zondi was not so easily swayed. “This is perhaps a slip of the tongue … he is looking down on his own city.”

uMgungundlovu District Mayor Yusuf Bhamjee avoided making comment, saying he had not heard about the remarks and was in a meeting.

DA leader Bill Lambert also said he had not heard anything about the remarks.

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