Zuma Decides on a 'Charm Offensive' as the Way to Handle the Media in Run-Up to Elections
As the demands and pressures of electioneering mount, it is not uncommon for politicians across the board to show growing signs of hyper-sensitivity and downright grumpiness towards the media.
Such displays of impatience or hostility towards members of the Fourth Estate are often not premeditated. After all, it does not make tactical sense to have fights brewing on too many fronts during an election campaign.
Outgunning dozens of rival parties is enervating enough. No need to maintain running battles with the media as well.
But journalists can be pretty exasperating. By asking awkward questions and making unflattering assessments during the period of intense scrutiny that often accompanies elections, hacks have been known to upset the equilibrium of powerful, self-confident and seemingly unflappable politicians.
One senior politician who has been the subject of intense and sometimes hostile probing by the media in recent months has been Deputy President Jacob Zuma.
The media have been running with a veritable torrent of arms deal-related stories dealing with alleged bribery and corruption, conflicts of interests, mismanagement of personal finances, internecine battles with former comrades and much else besides.
And by all accounts there is more to come.
Zuma's position as head of the government's moral renewal campaign has probably influenced the tone and content of much of the reporting on these issues and speculation about his political future.
Another hat that Zuma has been charged with wearing is that of leader of the government's campaign to address the HIV/Aids pandemic.
Here, too, many taxing questions have been asked - and allegations levelled - on issues of urgency, effectiveness, and the moral and political leadership necessary to deal with the crisis.
A third hot potato that Zuma is frequently required to juggle falls into the area of foreign policy, diplomacy and peace-brokering. This is the arena in which the deputy president appears to be blessed with particular aptitude and skill, and the media have documented - though probably not with sufficient nuance and detail - his numerous accomplishments in this area.
Unfortunately for Zuma, the prickly issue of Zimbabwe comes with this territory. Voicing support in Southern African Development Community forums for the way Robert Mugabe has been handling the land issue did not earn him many bouquets with human rights groups and the international media in particular.
Also the clear lack of concern at the destruction of media freedom in Zimbabwe (still not officially repudiated or even commented upon) recently showcased to the international media corps and foreign diplomats by his former wife and cabinet colleague, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has raised ticklish questions about the depth of commitment within government in general to principles of freedom of expression.
Against this background, some might have anticipated a lively and somewhat testy encounter when Zuma duly kept his keenly awaited date with the Cape Town Press Club a few days ago.
Was he going to round on the press, which has been on his case like a zealous watchdog for so many months now? Was he going to follow the time-honoured tactic of politicians feeling the heat - blame the media for their plight?
And would the assembled media, now that they had Zuma in their den, continue to probe perceived chinks in his personal and political armour?
When everyone was asked to stand as a mark of respect when the deputy president entered the lion's den, one veteran reporter grumbled: "Will we be required to applaud as well?" Uh, oh - this could get ugly.
Unusually, the invited speaker would perform directly after the starters. Did that mean that the assembled journalists were the main course?
There was an expectant hush as Zuma strode slowly, almost regally, up to the podium. And then he went on the offensive.
Although the media had had weeks to prepare for the encounter, most seemed to be caught off-guard by Zuma, long acknowledged as a smart fighter and shrewd tactician by friend and foe alike.
For Zuma had decided that a charm offensive was the way to go. He paid tribute to the contribution many journalists made in the fight for justice and freedom in South Africa during the apartheid era.
A number of journalists had contributed to the struggle for democracy by, among other things, opposing censorship laws, exposing injustices and telling the truth. "This is an important historic fact not always noted when the apartheid story is told," he noted.
He went on to name a number of journalists who had made important contributions, emphasised that media freedom was enshrined in the constitution and asked that fairness should be the guiding principle when journalists "dealt with" politicians.
Whatever else Jacob Zuma might be, he is no pushover.
Johnson is a former political editor and assistant editor of the Cape Times.
With acknowledgements to Anthony Johnson and the Cape Times.