Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Feedback - Making Zuma: Unmaking Mbeki

Wits


Wits University hosted that public forum I told you about on the changing portrayals of SA's two Presidents - Zuma of the ANC and Mbeki of the Republic. The event, which was co-hosted by the Weekender, was attended by a good deal of the Joburg politerati and there was robust discussion about the media's role in the making and breaking of our leaders.


Prof. Tawana Kupe initiated the discussion by hoisting before the audience a series of Star newspaper covers that ranged from around 2006 - 2007. They showed in graphic detail, to use Kupe's phrase, "the fall and rise of Jacob Zuma." JZ's rape trial and acquittal, the mini-putch at the National General Council in mid-2007 and finally, Zuma’s coup de grace, Polokwane in December of that same year. The selection illustrated how perceptions of the ANC President have evolved over the last two years. One of the more noteworthy headlines was the "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" which sat like bookends alongside a very contrite picture of JZ after his trial, lip curled and all. Kupe's main point was that there is a symbiotic relationship between journalists and people with power. When power shifts, and the fortunes of the powerful change, the media also shifts in its representations.

Kupe continued that post-Polokwane the media is now writing political obituaries for Mbeki, but this trend obscures the actual legacy of his presidency, which is a lot more complex than that. I tend to disagree with Prof. Kupe here. Although I will concede that lately everybody's favourite pastime is to lambaste the Pres, I think that Mbeki has bestowed on us a culture of intolerance as well as a casual disregard for our nascent democratic institutions in order to wage personal wars (most graphically illustrated by his handling of the Selebi affair).

Prof. Sipho Seepe was sceptical about the claim that the media ‘made’ Jacob Zuma. For those who were in the struggle with JZ this is unseemly, he said. Here is a man who was central in finding a peaceful solution with IFP militias in KZN shortly after the bloodletting of the transitional years. Ditto with Burundi, one of SA’s more successful peace-making efforts on the continent and in which Zuma was the principal negotiator. He is a Robben Islander, has extensive military experience and a long-standing relationship with the ANC’s intelligence networks. Although JZ was very well connected within the movement - at a time when Mbeki was distant and distracted - there was a period when the former was sidelined by the media. As a last point Seepe said that when he was in Senegal at the time of Polokwane, people were shocked; they couldn’t believe that such a powerful incumbent of the ruling party could be unseated. This is quite an amazing achievement for an African democracy.




Adam Habib asked why people found it surprising that when power shifts the media shifts too. "So what! Everybody shifts so lets not be surprised by that." Habib noted that there was a sense of urban chauvinism in people’s attitudes towards Zuma. The fact that JZ was such a successful peacemaker means he is incredibly astute. Astuteness and political agility are qualities that we look for in our national leaders, so maybe we underestimated Mr. JZ.

However, Habib warned, we have been in this position before. Remember how much everyone over-idealised Mbeki? Lets not do this again. We cannot get around the uncomfortable fact that Zuma has been associated with some questionable behaviour. There is humility in him, yes, he said, acknowledging Prof Seepe, but there is other stuff that we should be cautious of.

“How has Zuma rehabilitated itself?” Habib asked. The charm offensive is a graphic illustration that Jacob Zuma has a coherent press strategy. Afrikaners, Republicans in Texas, businessmen at home and in the UK: all of these groups have been actively courted. There is a deliberate strategy to talk to stakeholders who don’t like him.

Another reason for the success of Zuma is that his reference point has become so bad! Thabo Mbeki has made some huge blunders vis-à-vis Selebi, Pikoli, Zimbabwe and people are inclined to think that JZ might be better. However, with regards the ANC President’s statements on the Zimbabwe question, we must remember that Zuma has greater latitude to make bold proclamations as president of the ruling party than Mbeki has as leader of the country.

We should however, not take Mr. Zuma’s popularity for granted. For instance, the court case could still unmask his flaws. There is also an election campaign coming up next year. Every opposition politician is going to highlight his weaknesses and as much as one’s image can be made, it can also be undone.

Raenette Taljaard expressed her amazement at how journalists underestimated Zuma and misread the changes that were happening at the branch level of the ANC. Our elite structure is exceptionally small in SA - you could literally meet every judge, every national politician and editor. These elites have a tendency to reproduce their own perceptions which is why we were so surprised that the branches voted in the way that they did.

Ms. Taljaard warned that we should not romanticise politicians, irrespective of who they are, and which parties they represent. The relationship between politicians and the populace is a permanently renewable one, she said.

The most notable aspect of the succession race has been the high nature of the drama. How the media in any other country could have responded any better to this level of Shakespearean drama is unclear. The run-up to Polokwane must have been one of the most difficult periods to be an editor of a South African newspaper.

The elephant in the room is the arms deal. Although Zuma was fired for supposed complicity in the deal, it was Thabo Mbeki who was head of the cabinet committee responsible for arms procurement. These questions need answering and, to use Taljaard’s metaphor, there are umbilical cords linking these two leaders that will not be easily severed. The two men are defined in juxtaposition to each other, but they are nevertheless intimately bound together.

The above text is a rewritten version of the notes I took of the Tues 24th June session and should not be considered as verbatim or used for quoting purposes.

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