President Jacob Zuma has no illusions about the scope of the problems facing his government, but also believes South Africans can be hyper-critical to their own detriment.
A leaner President Jacob Zuma tells Kevin Ritchie that he is confident South Africa is on the right track.
Johannesburg – There’s little that keeps Jacob Zuma up at night. Thanks to advice from his doctors, he’s taking things easier since being booked off for 10 days in June sparking a major health fear. There’s plenty that concerns him though.
Zuma’s slimmer than he has been, but is not as gaunt as when he opened Parliament after the ANC successfully defended its majority in the May general elections.
He’s in good spirits as he steps into the drawing room at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the presidential residence in Pretoria on the Meintjieskop ridge south of the Union Buildings. It’s the first time he’s granted an interview in more than a year.
I’ve interviewed Zuma once before – in the ANC headquarters opposite The Star in 2009. He was head of the ANC and on the cusp of becoming president of the country.
Two years before, he had beaten Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane, then seen his one-time nemesis recalled from the very building we are sitting in. At that time, Zuma was upbeat, broader in the shoulders and thicker in the midriff, on his toes like a boxer waiting for the bell.
Now, he’s relaxed. Still animated and passionate about issues, still charming, but confident, almost serenely so.
To his right, the Farlam Commission into the Marikana massacre on the platinum belt plays out silently on a 50-inch plasma TV screen placed among the Pierneef paintings mounted on tapestries, across the room from the baby grand.
On screen, former ANC stalwart turned Economic Freedom Fighters commissar Dali Mpofu robustly cross-examines his deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Mpofu, a one-time ANC luminary, is grandstanding for the benefit of the live broadcast, raising the ire of the other counsel and testing Judge Ian Farlam’s patience. Mpofu is a couple of hours away from calling on the commission to have Ramaphosa criminally charged for orchestrating the tragedy.
For Zuma, it’s both proof of how far the country has come, and a harbinger of the problems he sees ahead if the rules of the game are not followed.
“We are an open society, we are a democracy, there’s no one who is above the law. The deputy president is being grilled in a legal, very open process.
“The question is how far do you go? You’ve got the deputy president here – how are you dealing with him?
“Because the manner in which you deal with him with that situation could go a long way to wrongly educate society that you can talk any way to an elder, so you need particularly the people who are professional to be measured because whatever they do is an education to society itself.”
Society, Zuma believes, needs to be educated about the constitution and the raft of laws that underpin it, to ensure that it and the state it describes are protected.
The spate of service delivery protests remains a concern for him. Zuma blames his own party for failing to deal with what he sees as a legacy of apartheid.
“During (apartheid), violence became an instrument used too often in a number of areas that tended to influence those the violence was used against to use violence in return and in defence of themselves.
“When we resolved our problems in South Africa what we did not do was to realise the extent and the depth of that culture in our society.
“We did not work out a programme to address that problem that you don’t break things when you are demanding things.
“If there’s a protest by people empowered by the constitution you will find that they now break houses of poor people who might have built those houses with their own money over many years. They undermine the right of those people to own property. At times, if people are striking they then go on a march and really undermine the rights of other people in the process.”
South Africa stands the real risk, he says, of being defined as much for its violent protests as it once was for its peaceful transition from apartheid.
Another concern is crime, particularly involving children, which has the East Rand township of Reiger Park in its thrall, among others. He is horrified by the crime, but heartened by the way the communities have risen up against the scourge of drugs and the victimisation of children.
Winning this war will require both the police and the community to work in tandem, he says. He’s confident though.
“We’ll succeed because we talk about these things.
“If a child has been kidnapped, you can see how the society gets up to condemn it, the question is how we build on that to ensure we can move forward.”
One thing that doesn’t appear to worry Zuma is the rise of the EFF under former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.
The EFF, he says, was spawned by angry people expelled from the ANC or disaffected by it, just like the Congress of the People (Cope), which was almost annihilated at the polls in May, and its forerunner the United Democratic Movement (UDM).
“South Africans are critical – when we go for elections, we have a huge number of political parties that mushroom, but when all is said and done and the voters are no longer listening and laughing and have to be serious, they vote ANC.”
Political parties, he says, can’t be formed on animosity: “You can’t, because you are angry, create a political party. You are not disagreeing on policies and ideologies – you can’t last.
“The EFF is worse than the others because firstly it is a very angry and a very excited kind of party, they’ve got ideas that say we’re going to change things, but what does it stand for?
“Economic freedom. What does that mean? You’re fighting for economic freedom, from whom? Who is oppressing you?”
If the EFF can’t deliver, it will face the same fate as the other ANC splinter organisations, he says. But it can’t do that without support – and at the moment, it’s a distant third to the ANC, so its promises of nationalising everything remain a pipe dream.
Zuma is unperturbed too about the personal criticism he has faced. The furore over the hundreds of millions of rand spent on his rural homestead in Nkandla is never far from the news. He has been lampooned by cartoonists, castigated by columnists and fallen foul of the public protector, yet he has retained the support of the common people.
“I think people do appreciate what I’ve managed to achieve. Even those who are generally critical, I don’t ever think they’ve said: ‘This man is lazy.’
“The majority comment about it all the time, many will tell you what they think the country has achieved and say: ‘Thank you very much, it is because of you.’
“It’s part of life, but South Africans are generally a critical society, sometimes overly critical when we need to say: ‘Actually, we have done well.’”
“We laugh at that because even when they are critical, they are sitting in the RDP house given to them by the government and they say: ‘This government is doing nothing,’” he says.
Zuma has four years left in office before he must step down.
His dream is that South Africa will one day be able to solve all its problems, particularly the historic ones of inequality.
“The progress we have made in 20 years is progress no country on the continent has made. The fact that the government has a programme for people to build houses for people who don’t have houses, you have never heard of other countries doing so. People, once they are free, must look after themselves.”
Zuma has no illusions about the scale of the challenge.
On his doctors’ orders, he’s no longer holding meetings into the early hours of the morning, but his diary remains jam- packed, flying to Angola yesterday for a mini summit on the Great Lakes issue before heading to Zimbabwe for an SADC summit.
Part of the problem is the Mandela legacy, which created the expectation that South Africa would play its role on the continent, he says, and part of it is his own background.
“This culture I have comes from my background of being a struggler where there was no time to rest until you were free and, of course, once you are free, there is no time to rest until you solve the problems of the country. To succeed, you have to make things happen.”
* Kevin Ritchie is acting editor at The Star.