Zuma fails to impress foreign hacks

Zuma addresses foreign correspondents in Johannesburg this week. (Robin Malherbe)

Zuma addresses foreign correspondents in Johannesburg this week. (Robin Malherbe)

It has not been a good few months for President Jacob Zuma or South Africa. Given recent events, the Economist's now infamous "Cry, the beloved country" cover story last month did not come as too much of a surprise, especially in the context of an equally gloomy outlook from the Financial Times and others.

We all know how personally the presidency took the Economist's story, sending out a 1400-word emailed response on a Sunday afternoon. It carefully listed the country's achievements since 1994 and denied the assertion that South Africa was slipping down while the rest of the continent was on the up.

On the back of this, the out-of-the-blue announcement late last week that Zuma had finally accepted a long-standing invitation for a meeting with the local Foreign Correspondents Association was read by its members as part two of the defence strategy.

And so we were there bright and early on Monday to hear what Zuma had to say at a breakfast briefing at the Johannesburg Country Club.

Things did not get off to a brilliant start when Zuma stumbled over a rambling six-page speech that talked about the ANC's recent solidarity conference and its achievements over the past 100 years.

This mini-history lesson was ­followed by a long list of statistics proving how well the country was developing; some of the sentences cut and pasted directly from presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj's Economist rebuttal.

It was not until the middle of the third page (we were helpfully given a photocopied printout afterwards) that Zuma acknowledged the "challenges" of service delivery and the "painful incidents" at Marikana. But the deference was shortlived and the focus turned quickly to the "responsibilities" of the mining sector.

Referring to the ANC's relationship with its various leagues and the tripartite alliance and the party's upcoming national elective conference, he said: "We have to contend with the eagerness of the media ... to focus on perceived battles in the ANC, instead of the important policies that are to be discussed ..."

Afterwards, Zuma blasted Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's assertion that South Africa was at a "tipping point" – saying it was an "unfortunate statement" – and stressing that strikes and disagreements were a natural part of a democracy.

The media, he said, had "misunderstood" the situation. Everything was fine in the party and the country as a whole and there was no crisis.

Poorly briefed
His responses to questions about Nkandla – first that he could not comment because the public protector was investigating and second that "they" did the security upgrades – hinged on the absurd.

And not only did he come across as poorly briefed about the issue of travel funding for Marikana families, his answers were clinical and he seemed to miss a golden opportunity to try to bring the press back onside by demonstrating some warmth or humanity.

The word on many lips, in between mouthfuls of post-session bacon and eggs, was "underwhelming".

It was a peculiar performance from a president who we know can do so much better. He said Manguang was not getting to him and he laughed off a question about whether Motlanthe was giving him sleepless nights.

But either he protests too much, or needs to trim down his schedule to focus on giving a few really good performances rather than a dozen mediocre ones. Granted, he did not fall asleep at this meeting (as he did at a recent infrastructure conference), but some of us were not far off.

Louise Redvers is a British freelance journalist based in South Africa

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