Breakfast with Zuma

2009-04-07 00:00

I had breakfast with Jacob Zuma on Tuesday morning. It was a pleasant affair as I am sure the 250 other guests invited by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) will agree.

My interest in attending the breakfast was threefold:

• to hear what the future president of South Africa had to say;

• to see how he answered questions; and

• to get a sense of the way he connected with the audience.

When he was introduced by executive director of the SAIRR John Kane-Berman, mention was made that this was the third pre-election presentation; the previous two had had the Congress of the People’s Mosiuoa Lekota and the Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille as guests. After a fairly lengthy CV revealing Zuma’s struggle credentials, he took the platform and immediately queried why he hadn’t been invited to the previous two events. This may have been interpreted by many as a jocular comment, but it was a signal of the character of the man and of what was to follow.

What he had to say was what was to be expected in the run-up to the elections of April 22. “We are 22 days away from exercising our right to vote, a right for which so many lost their lives ... Our vote will secure the gains we made in 1994 ... Our freedom is the consequence of many decades of struggle ... Each election is a celebration of our South Africaness and our re-entering the family of nations ... We have 23 million registered voters, half of whom were not born when Nelson Mandela was released ... We are committed to an inclusive society and we must build a new patriotism where all South Africans, black and white, are proud of their country ... Our anchor is our Constitution.”

We were reminded of the focus of Finance Minister Trevor Manuel’s budget speech and of the African National Congress byline “working together we can do more”.

All normal pre-election stuff with nothing new.

Then came question time. The manner in which Zuma answered questions was intriguing. It seemed definite and explicit in answering questions about issues over which he, as the next president, would have direct control. For example, when he was asked whether he will dismiss government ministers who are incompetent, he said: “Absolutely, no one will remain if they don’t perform. If they don’t serve, I will simply say ‘sorry’. Our business is to serve our people, not ourselves.” In answer to the question on monitoring employment equity: “I intend setting up a function in the Presidency to specifically monitor the performance of our government programmes.”

But, when it came to questions on which he would need to rely on his ministers or on government policy, he was less forthright. For example, in answer to the question of the role of the Reserve Bank: “It should continue as is. It has done a good job over the past 14 years.” In answer to the question on a sunset clause in respect of affirmative action: “I don’t think we should have a sunset clause. I’m sure this issue will come right on its own. We are open to suggestions on better implementation and hopefully in the future this will become a more natural process of employment and move away from theoretical debate.” In answer to a question on foreign policy, specifically Zimbabwe, Sudan and the Dalai Lama: “Our policy will remain the same, but these matters are complicated and inevitably involve a lot more than the bilateral relationships between two countries.”

This brings me to the third point — how he connected with the audience. When he was answering the question on the Dalai Lama, he noticed some people shaking their heads in disagreement. He hesitated, empathised and proceeded to explain in quite considerable detail some of the complications around this issue, showing genuine concern for those who disagreed.

Upon leaving, he made a point of going up to the staff and chatting to them in a manner that went beyond just thanking them for the meal.

It’s hard not to conclude that he is indeed a man of the people. I personally have formed many deep-seated impressions over the past number of years regarding the Schabir Shaik trial, the rape trial, his dismissal as deputy president and the current NPA charges. Nevertheless, my overall impression of the man is that he is sincere and he has a genuine empathy for his fellow South Africans. He does not carry the type of political distance and detachment that we have become accustomed to. His tone was not that of opposition basher or of the arrogant leadership of a dominant party. He was sensitive to the mood of the audience and on many occasions reached out to the questioners. He talked often of the “reality” rather than the “niceties of theory”. His laughter, the way he shook hands and his tactile nature were genuine.

Is he trying to be all things to all people? It’s hard to tell.

I came away with the impression that he does want to be remembered for implementing a more vigorous and accountable government, for bringing services to the poor, for making the right economic decisions and for encouraging, even facilitating, a new sense of patriotism. Time will tell.

I think many people came away from the breakfast feeling heartened, maybe not because of what they heard, but rather because of what they saw and experienced as a genuine South African interaction with very little pomp and grandstanding. — South Africa The Good News

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