Monday, September 21, 2009

The Zuma riddle

The Zuma riddle

Jeremy Gordin

ON TUESDAY evening I had a little chat with a judge from the highest court in the land - no name, no embarrassment for him (or me). We did not discuss any past or future Jacob G Zuma cases or, for that matter, anybody else's. But s/he did say to me that: "I've found it remarkable the way the attitude of many of my friends towards Zuma has changed. The anger, puzzlement and, yes, actual hatred has shifted."

I must say I have not seen an enormous shift in the attitude of most people towards Zuma. As best as I can tell, most of my friends - and most people, including me - remain as mired in their previous prejudices (whatever they might be) as ever.

What I do believe has changed is the attitude of the media to Zuma. By "media", I mean mainly newspapers. (No names, no embarrassment for the Daily Dispatch.) In fact, from the beginning of this year till now, I sense in certain newspapers an air (almost) of bereavement. Their favourite whipping-boy and villain is gone.

What is there is write about? Who is there to blame? Ah, it might be argued, newspapers are the voice of the people. If they have changed their attitude to Zuma - if only because he is, after all, now the president of the beloved republic - that is because the majority of people have done so.

I don't entirely agree with that argument.

There is a large disjuncture in this country - perhaps in many countries, but definitely here - between "the people" (that is, the majority of those qualified to make an "x" at election time) and the media. In this country, it goes even further than a mere disjuncture. What the ANC presidential election results at Polokwane in December 2007 and the latest general election results have demonstrated is that "the people" mostly don't give a rat's ass about what newspapers think.

In fact, the majority of the people do not seem to trust newspapers. The only newspaper that most of the people seem to like is The Daily Sun, one of the great success stories of all time. And, if you think it is only about tokoloshes and wild dogs roaming the streets of Gugulethu, you would be mistaken. There's a great deal of what the poker-faces would call "socially relevant" material in the Sun, even if it's often disguised.

But this article is not about newspapers. The point I am trying to make is that one of the lessons of Polokwane 2007 was that Zuma did not need the usual media to succeed. He and his acolytes ran his campaign differently (mainly by mobile phone - but this is another story).

Yet, notwithstanding the media attitude to Zuma up until the end of 2007, and notwithstanding the grumbles with which the ANC occasionally comes up, there still remains - if you think about it - an enormous amount of respect shown by the ANC towards the media. I believe it is part of the general hang-over of certain values from the days when the ANC was a liberation party that genuinely espoused the values that would become enshrined in our constitution.

But this too is a story and argument for another day. Back to the judge. Why has s/he experienced a shift of attitude towards Zuma among friends? I think it is because Zuma has mostly kept his utterances streamlined, balanced and to the point. Besides, the real point is that most things in life are relative. And Zuma has been surrounded lately by such gob-smacking foolishness that he has emerged as a sort of beacon of sanity.

Consider the racist mutterings of young Julius Malema on the subject of the dearth of black people at the head of government's finance cluster. Zuma quickly but quietly kiboshed that malarkey. Consider the moronic utterances and lies that the Caster Semenya story spawned - "a third world war" and such codswallop. Zuma is the only leading official who has said something sensible and dignified: that Semenya's privacy had been violated and that this was unacceptable.
And yet there remain three issues on which Zuma should have said something but has not.
The first is that the abjectly pusillanimous behaviour of the Judicial Service Commission regarding Judge John Hlophe - the decision not to consider the matter between him and the Constitutional Court - was a disgrace.

And though the issue might not, strictly speaking, fall within the president's bailiwick, it was serious enough to warrant a comment from him. What is especially worrying is the sense one gets that the decision made by the JSC majority was one Zuma favoured.

The second issue on which Zuma should have said something is that in a country such as ours, and given Zuma's supposed "constituency" (working class and poor people), two of his senior ministers, one of higher education, the other of communication, opted to buy absurdly expensive vehicles. This is a disgrace. Zuma should have told them to give them back.

The third is that the minister of defence and veterans, or whatever she's called, has hired - or had foisted on her - not only a loose cannon but a fugitive from justice, one Paul Ngobeni. What is worrying is the feeling one gets that he got the job because of his overt and voluble support of Zuma.

As I have suggested above, the lesson of Polokwane and the general election was that the views of the so-called chattering classes and the mainstream media do not matter as much as they like to think.

But, since Zuma has made a clear attempt to be balanced, statesmanlike and sensible, he should realise that the mind-boggling venality of Nyanda and Nzimande on the one hand, and the behaviour of Hlophe and Ngobeni on the other, can be as bad for his political health and that of the ANC as Malema's utterances. As least Malema is kind of funny.

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