Zuma : How did the Media get it so Wrong?
'I think of it as a Ronald Reagan versus Bill Clinton sort of affair - cunning versus intellect'
Shock might be too strong a word - but many people were definitely very surprised when they discovered last week that ANC members had overwhelmingly nominated Jacob Zuma as their next president.
Remarkably, it was members of the media, print and electronic, as well some political analysts - the very people who are supposed to know what is going on and to tell society about it - who seemed the most flabbergasted and baffled by the "surprising" turn of events.
Zuma, the deputy president of the ANC and former deputy president of South Africa - he was sacked by President Thabo Mbeki in June 2005 after the trial of Durban businessman Schabir Shaik - was nominated as the organisation's next president by five provinces (Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Northern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga), the youth league and the women's league.
Mbeki won four provinces (Eastern Cape, Limpopo, North West and Western Cape).
Most significantly, Mbeki's winning margins in the provinces he won were modest. In the end, Mbeki trudged in 842 votes behind his deputy, Zuma having mustered a total of 2 236 votes to Mbeki's 1 394.
But why did these results come as such a surprise to many analysts, editors, political journalists - all the talking heads and writing hands?
Why did they not foresee the depth of Zuma's support or, depending on how you want to view the issue, the depth of the desire for Mbeki to move on?
Why did we in the media not get it right? Why were we not telling our readers and listeners that a Zuma victory was the way in which the nomination process was going to play out?
According to Anton Harber, professor of journalism at Wits University, the answer is pretty straightforward: "Too much speculation by journalists, not enough legwork. Reporting in recent months was largely reduced to carrying claims and counter-claims from each side, and providing a channel for leaks, rather than trying to find out what was happening at branch level in the ANC.
"It should have been clear," Harber continued, "since the national executive council meeting, when Zuma was reinstated as party deputy president, that Mbeki was in trouble. But you also have to keep in mind that this is all new to us - journalists are only learning how the ANC process works and how we have to understand it and what it will take to cover these things properly."
Patrick Laurence, a veteran political journalist, said: "I can only really talk for myself. And I assumed much too readily that Mbeki was the master of the political manoeuvre - remember when he outfoxed Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale in the late 1990s? So I sort of assumed his invincibility, politically.
"Second," said Laurence, "the media clearly did not talk to people to whom they ought to have been talking - ANC branch-level members. So there was simply insufficient empirical evidence for our prognostications.
"Third, I think too few whites have an understanding of grassroots black people, and black journalists don't seem to bother with them either. So there was no understanding coming out in the media of what people in the townships were thinking."
There was another important factor, Laurence added, that played a significant role in the media's misreading of Zuma support.
"I think this applied especially to white journalists - but, then again, black journalists did not seem to operate differently. It was a kind of shutting of the mind to the possibility of a Zuma presidency. For many whites, but, as I said, apparently for many black media practitioners as well, the idea of Zuma as president was - to quote John Vorster, unfortunately - 'just too ghastly to contemplate'.
"People forgot, or did not even know," Laurence said, "that Zuma may not have an impressive formal education, but he is astute and perceptive.
"Finally," Laurence concluded, "there was not a large appreciation of the gatvol factor among ANC members with regard to Mbeki. Mbeki does appear to be disdainful and aloof - a representative of the patrician classes, if you like - whereas Zuma has made certain that he has remained a man of the people."
Chris Whitfield, the editor of the Cape Argus and Weekend Argus, said he did not entirely agree that the media had got it wrong.
"Sure, I suppose there was some wishful thinking happening among the media - they did not want Zuma to win so they couldn't see, in a way, what was happening in the ANC.
"But I have to tell you that our Mbeki sources kept on telling us that Mbeki was going to walk it - that he was going to thrash Zuma in the nominations process. So, it wasn't so much we the media, as the Mbeki camp, that got it wrong."
Mo Shaik, a former diplomat and brother of Schabir, said: "Journalists never understood the enormous fury that swept through ANC members when Mbeki fired JZ. Journalists did not understand how difficult and painful that was for the ANC rank and file.
"I think the media also missed the depth of JZ's support - though there have been one or two exceptions, yourself in the Independent group's Sunday newspapers and Karima Brown of Business Day - because they spent too much time analysing their own fears and prejudices.
"They were too busy with their own worries about 'what will happen if JZ becomes president?', when they ought to have been talking to people on the branch level a long time ago. Journalists were talking to themselves."
Peter Bruce, the editor of Business Day and the Weekender, agreed that most of the media and the analysts had got it wrong.
"I think of it as a Ronald Reagan versus Bill Clinton sort of affair - cunning versus intellect. Some of us assumed that every time intellect, as in Clinton and Mbeki, beats intelligence or cunning, as in Reagan and Zuma, and we were wrong. Cunning, wiliness wins every time."
Ranjeni Munusamy, a former journalist and now a friend and sometime assistant to Zuma, said: "The main problem is that the media keeps talking to itself. They start becoming their own sources, instead of talking to the people to whom they ought to be speaking."
Not everyone readily agreed that the media had called the succession battle incorrectly.
Adam Habib, a leading political analyst, said he - and some other analysts - had not called it wrongly and that he was not at all surprised by the result.
Habib maintained, however, that the battle was far from over yet. He believed there was a strong possibility that there was going to be some kind of compromise deal struck - between the party's head honchos, Zuma and Mbeki - in terms of which someone else would take control of the party and country, "with the quid pro quo being that the charges against Zuma are going to disappear."
Ferial Haffajee, editor of the Mail & Guardian, said her newspaper had "not missed" anything at all.
"Without wanting to sound arrogant, I believe we have covered what's been going on, consistently and with balance - and though some of our coverage has reflected the enormous split that was going to happen in the ANC, and did, we were not at all taken by surprise."
Mark Gevisser, author of the Mbeki biography, A Dream Deferred, said he had not been taken aback by the result, "though I must concede that I was gob-smacked by the women's league coming out in support of Zuma."
Gevisser did concede, however, that the Mbeki camp had been "too confident".
He said: "There may also have been a lot of wish fulfillment taking place among commentators.
"I think many people hoped that there would be two equally balanced forces in the end and that this would lead to a situation in terms of which there would be a 'third way', another candidate.
"But, well, that isn't what's happened."
With acknowledgements to Jeremy Gordin and Cape Argus.