It's time to start taking Zuma seriously

Jeremy Gordin writes on the almost eerie perplexity following the president's state of the nation address

Jeremy Gordin believes that the almost eerie perplexity that immediately followed President Jacob Zuma's state of the nation address on Wednesday indicates that many people still can't quite grasp that he is indeed the president of the republic ...

By Thursday mid-morning, when the leaders of the opposition parties stood up in parliament to reply officially to President Jacob Zuma's state of the nation address, they had some interesting, perhaps even valuable, things to say.

DA parliamentary leader Athol Trollip warned that Zuma needed to beware of an overly Socialist agenda. Patricia de Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats, pointed out that "without implementation and monitoring, the best plans will come to nothing".

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder seemed the most cogent and focused when he pointed out that one of the largest problems bedevilling the body politic is the civil service. As it is presently constituted and operates, he argued, it simply won't be able to deliver on Zuma's many promises.

But what struck this viewer most forcibly was the immediate response of various opposition politicians, television and radio reporters, talking heads and various others - the response that came right after Zuma's address on Wednesday midday.

This response was, well, remarkably underwhelming.

Straight after the address, when radio and television microphones were shoved under their noses, most said something along the lines of: "Er, nice enough speech, addressed many issues, probably too many. But there was no detail, no detail at all ..."

This was countered by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who appeared to be wandering around the parliamentary precinct like a hyperactive spin doctor, ensuring that the ANC reaction got an airing on every conceivable radio and TV channel.

Mantashe pointed out that detail was not the president's business, not in a state of the nation address anyway; and that, in any case, as pointed out by Zuma, ministers were going to be working out the finer print of the important strategies between now and July.

Mantashe could have come on even stronger. He could have asked why it is, for example, that US President Barack Obama's speeches, including his famous inauguration speech, contain almost no detail at all - in fact they are almost always a collage of advertising-type rhetoric of the kind that should be delivered by a coach at half-time to his losing players - yet they are lauded to the skies, while Zuma's utterances are always damned with very faint praise?

Even by Wednesday evening, to judge by the statements published in Thursday morning's newspapers, the reactions to Zuma's speech were pretty lacklustre.

The Congress of the People said (in an unsigned statement): "There are parts of the statement no South African can disagree with ... But [the speech] was a missed opportunity to outline a program of action that can inspire South Africa and mobilise the South African people behind a uniting program to deal with the challenges of the day."

Vacuous stuff, really, and pretty short on detail too.

DA parliamentary leader Athol Trollip was a little better: "Within this broad agenda, there were positive initiatives and policy proposals. However, while President Zuma did well to cover most areas of concern in general terms, his speech lacked detail and specificity ..."

We have already - or, rather, Mantashe has - dealt with the matter of "specificity".

DA leader Helen Zille's reaction - this also immediately after the address - was perhaps the most interesting of all. Even though she expressed concern about the ANC's Orwellian (in her view) move towards a centralised civil service, she was, by her usual standards, almost stunned. She seemed to be struggling to find something to say, and struggling too with having to say that, well, actually she didn't think it too bad a speech at all.

Why was this?

Why were the opposition politicians and analysts in a state of apparent perplexity about Zuma's speech? Why was damning him with faint praise the best they could do?

I think there is a two-part answer to these questions.

The first part of the answer is that Zuma's speech was pretty damn clever and this took everyone aback.

Zuma covered all the bases for which he would have been lambasted if he had not covered them. He made certain to connect clearly his administration to Nelson Mandela's.

Zuma also moved seamlessly between the requisite Olympian overview and the personal touch that we mere mortals love - telling school kids to do their homework and teachers to come to class on time. By trying to speak Afrikaans, by not speaking isiZulu (and choosing instead Sotho and isiXhosa), and via his comments on national unity, he stayed well away from former President Thabo Mbeki's petty-minded, divisive carping.

Most importantly - and only the Freedom Front Plus' Pieter Mulder seemed to have picked this up - Zuma firmly closed the door on the Mbeki-type denialism that we have had our noses rubbed in for a decade.

Zuma might have been short on detail. But at least, and at last, HIV-Aids, crime, the Zimbabwean situation and a host of other ills - from the global recession to unemployment and the state of health care - were dealt with in an adult fashion as realities, and not defensively either.

But why were people apparently unable to recognise these qualities? Why did they not know what to say?

The second part of the answer to these questions is that, for reasons with which we are all familiar, the media and the opposition (from whom it might be expected) still do not trust Zuma.

There is still a strange air of begrudging disbelief that hangs around members of the media and analysts when it comes to Zuma.

It's almost as if they expect him suddenly to stop making a measured and careful presidential speech and to rip off his suit and tie, revealing leopard skins beneath, and to start frothing at the mouth and calling for his machine gun.

Zuma is not likely to do any of those things. He has moved on and takes his job extraordinarily seriously. Maybe some of us should start taking him seriously too - and give praise where, and if, praise is due.

Jeremy Gordin is author of Zuma: A biography. This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared in the Daily Dispatch

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