Publication: Sunday Independent Issued: Date: 2004-03-14 Reporter: Charles Phahlane

Zuma Makes His Comeback With a Flourish



Sunday Independent

Date 2004-03-14


Charles Phahlane

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Deputy President Jacob Zuma is on a mission to rebuild his public image after his bruising battle with the Scorpions.

This became apparent at a presidential press corps briefing this week where Zuma gave the performance of a man who wanted to sweep away any niggling worries in the public mind about his future.

Zuma spoke boldly, breathing life into President Thabo Mbeki's state of the nation address. Dressed in a blue shirt, a shiny blue tie and an olive-grey jacket, he looked professional. His spectacles and shiny silver watch added to his studious look.

He would open his hands in an I-am-honest pose, pointing his index finger decidedly to drive a point home and clasping his hands in a prayer-like position as he appeared to be thinking deeply. He made excellent eye contact as he spoke, raising or squeezing his brow depending on the point he was making, and sweeping his hands for emphasis.

Some journalists stopped writing as they realised that this was a rehash of the state of the nation address, but Zuma would thump the table to show the seriousness of the subject. He was a marvel to watch, and Charlize Theron might have turned green with envy.

When Zuma became the deputy president he held a breakfast meeting with parliamentary journalists at which he talked about anything the wanted to raise. The intention was for these meetings to take place on a regular basis but this never happened. At the height of the HIV/Aids confusion he held a lunch where he spoke convincingly about the government's strategy on Aids. He was able to navigate a minefield of difficult questions in a manner that commanded respect.

This probably contributed to Zuma having been seen as a possible successor to Mbeki, whose public image was plummeting over Zimbabwe, Aids and the alliance partners. His aides were even told early in 2001 not to give him too high a media profile. That was when Zuma issued the statement that he would not challenge Mbeki for the ANC presidency when his first term expired in 2002.

One or two more press meetings took place where Zuma would speak about anything under the sun.

But in the latter part of the last year, the usually affable Zuma retreated as he battled with the Scorpions. Zuma avoided the media and the press conference diary dried up. It was only after unavoidable public engagements that he would be cornered and forced to answer a question or two.

Meanwhile he was working on the structures of the movement. This led to his rousing welcome at the Cosatu congress in September last year and the resultant denouncement of Scorpions boss Bulelani Ngcuka.

At the time his communication aides were at a loss about how to deal with the media onslaught about Zuma's suspected complicity in corruption. At some point they would refuse to comment, referring queries to the ANC.

They implemented a fruitless strategy of zealously scrutinising media reports and demanding corrections on "factual" errors. Incidentally, when an error was made in their favour - that Zuma had been cleared by the public protector when he had not - the zealots were quiet.

Zuma took that media strategy further, challenging Judge Joos Hefer to correct publicly a misperception that could have been created by a press conference about Zuma's refusal to testify. But Hefer did not. Instead he published a series of correspondence between himself and Zuma that left Zuma looking bad. Hefer said it would be a "sad day" if a senior government figure would ignore a subpoena of a commission appointed by the president.

It was left to Mbeki to put a positive spin on the mater and say that Zuma had been misunderstood.

This year, Zuma's media strategy has changed. First he was brought in to address a press conference with Business Against Crime in February. Not much was written about the press conference in the print media but there was a SABC news clip about it. It succeeded in showing that the Scorpions matter was now history and Zuma was back in business. He then addressed the Cape Town Press Club, where he was seen dealing with important national matters such as the prospect of violence in KwaZulu-Natal and anti-retroviral treatment.

But the presidential press corps briefing this week was where Zuma's new strategy appeared in full swing.

He said that if he were a journalist he would write about how different things were now compared with 1994. There was no real substance to the briefing - everything was about projecting a new image.

A journalist threw in a barbed question about succession. In typical Zuma fashion, he turned what looked like a difficult question into a piece of cake. He said that it was not an issue in the ANC, citing the organisation's history of succession by deputies whose performance eclipsed that of former leaders.

It was not lost in the audience that Zuma is the deputy at the moment. But he stopped short of making that obvious connection, saying anyone could succeed Mbeki.

The presidential press corps is meant to give more background to senior journalists about the government's thinking on major issues. Zuma would not deal with major questions about Haiti and the mercenaries arrested in Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea. But his mission was accomplished. He had shown that he had ridden out the storm and was setting his eyes on the future.

Unless there is another arms deal shocker, that is.

With acknowledgements to Charles Phahlane and The Sunday Independent.