No stage fright for Mr President

When President Jacob Zuma sat down last week to make one of his most important announcements since becoming president, his demeanour could only be described as comfortable.

His announcement of his choice for the new chief justice came amid a heated public debate about the attitude of the ANC towards the judiciary. Fears that Zuma might denounce the judiciary and use it as his personal plaything went into overdrive.

But, on the day of the announcement in the posh Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria, he walked in laughing and cracking jokes with his spin team, consisting of experienced officials such as government communications chief Themba Maseko and new presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya, as well as Zuma’s trusted aide from his days as deputy president, Lakela Kaunda.

The smiles and laughter continued when the questions started coming from the country’s top journalists. Answers were careful and thorough with little attempt to dodge or deflect.

This is the new Jacob Zuma. He travelled a rocky road to become the first citizen, but he has settled in without much upheaval.

Those around him are embracing the change, which they say is filtering through to every level of government. “Now that he knows he is in charge, there is no boss above him, he can relax and let his personality come out,” a senior government official told the Mail & Guardian.

Having served at various levels of government before being sacked as deputy president in 2005 has helped Zuma fit into his new role with relative ease. “There is no doubt he is extremely comfortable and that’s because he is no stranger to government,” the government official said. “He knows how the system works, he knows he has the support of the ministers and he knows he has the support of the public.

“His attitude has surprised some of us. I thought that as soon as people assume this position they change.”

Before Zuma became president he was media-shy, electing to talk only to journalists he knew and trusted. Said an aide: “His willingness to face the media and tackle any questions is also something new. He doesn’t even demand a briefing beforehand.”

Especially during his campaign to become the ANC president in 2007, Zuma was known to keep a close kitchen cabinet of advisers.

Analyst Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, said that Zuma’s appointment of some of his inner circle to key positions is a source of worry. “The obvious worrying sign is that the police National Commissioner [Bheki Cele] is a close confidant of the president.”

Referring to Zuma’s various legal battles, Friedman warned that these appointments might serve the politicians rather than people.

“It looks like key appointments are made so that senior politicians don’t need to go through what Mr Zuma went through.”

Friedman said the Zuma administration’s approach to government bears an “uncanny resemblance” to that of former president Thabo Mbeki. “Mbeki put clever people at the top to issue instructions. Unless government works with citizens and interest groups it will not know what people want. A hotline and a few visits is not going to do it.”

Zuma’s close aide, Zizi Kodwa, said that despite Zuma’s ascent to the presidency some things remain the same. At the presidential residence in Pretoria, Mahlambandlophu, Zuma told staff “the president must not eat from Woolworths” and they should not cook rice—considered to be a luxury food item in some circles.

Said Kodwa: “He loves his African cuisine and wants to eat samp. He wants to show he hasn’t changed, he is still from Nkandla and will not do all kinds of fancy things now.”

Zuma has resisted switching to a Blackberry and still uses his old Nokia N-series cellphone. “He still takes calls on it all the time. He’s not saying: ‘Look, I’m president now and I’m in meetings and I can’t talk to you,’” said Kodwa.

When he goes to Nkandla he spends his time seeing and entertaining visitors. “He slaughters sheep and listens to people’s problems. The queues at Nkandla go on for kilometres and people stay there until deep into the night.”

Another major change is that no business deals are discussed in his meetings, said Kodwa. “He will discuss economic stability, policies and government work, as well as how to reduce the cost of doing business and how to make BEE [black economic empowerment] more broad-based.”

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