Letter: I’m sorry, President Zuma

President Jacob Zuma. File Photo: Ntswe Mokoena

President Jacob Zuma. File Photo: Ntswe Mokoena

Published Aug 13, 2015


Steven Motale writes that he’s been party to the sinister agenda against President Zuma, and can only apologise for that.

I’ve been party to the sinister agenda against Zuma, and can only apologise for that. I’m not saying I’m suddenly his biggest fan, but it’s time to admit I’ve been party to the unfairness, along with many of my colleagues.

As a young journalist, I started my career at a community newspaper and later joined The Citizen believing that my stories would tell the truth and help to transform a historically troubled title with questionable politics into one more in tune with the spirit of a new South Africa. I eventually gave up on that and left it for another media group.

When I returned to The Citizen, perhaps some of those old noble ideas were still there – but the truth is that I imagined that being the first black editor of a newspaper initially dreamt up in the 1970s to be the praise singer of the National Party would be enough. But being black is not enough on its own. Being black doesn’t mean you are changing anything or making a positive difference. It just means that the pay cheque that would have gone to a historically advantaged person and his family is now going to a black one.

Being black and not being able to look past a reality carefully constructed by those who despise the true consciousness of blackness means you may as well be white. And it would be better if you were. Because at least that would be more honest. And more sane.

But this is not a message about race, although race always matters in this country.

It’s a message about how the media is as much to blame for the current parlous state of this country’s politics and economy as the politicians and economists who have brought us here.

It all started in 2005 when Judge Hilary Squires handed down judgment to the financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, of the then-deputy president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

Shaik was found guilty of corruption and fraud and sentenced to 15 years in jail. But Squires’ verdict had an unintended consequence: it allowed Thabo Mbeki to fire Zuma and cast him out into the political wilderness. At the time, everyone, myself included, thought that was finally the moment we had all been waiting for; the moment the ANC would start to clean up its own house. We thought, at last, that there would consequences in the ANC from now on for wrongdoing.

This, we thought, was the ANC we had always wanted, the one we always dearly hoped we’d get, because if even a deputy president was not safe from betraying the nation’s trust, then no one could be.

At last, we thought (or, at least, I thought) we were getting tough on corruption.

But there’s the rub, right?

Pause for a moment and consider: What actually happened in 2005? Let’s look back, past the million headlines that have been published since then, and paint the picture once more.

Was Zuma actually found guilty of corruption? And, should he have been fired in the first place?

If you read the papers or listened to those who did, you might have been inclined to think he was, because the judge, we were repeatedly told, found there was a “generally corrupt relationship” between Shaik and Zuma. But by now we should know better. Nowhere did he actually say that. The prosecution had said it at the time, all the time, but the judge never did.

More than a year later, the white-haired judge felt it necessary to point out that he had made no ruling on Zuma’s corruption or lack of it, and Zuma had not been on trial. Even the rape charge that was thrown at him around the same time (just to make sure of his demise, perhaps) proved to be an empty attempt to smear him.

Unlike many among us, I have actually gone to the trouble of reading Judge Squires’ judgment, and not only does he not make any pronouncement on Zuma’s guilt or innocence, he at times goes to great pains to point out that there was no evidence offered to him that Zuma acted improperly in reciprocation of Shaik’s many attempts to corrupt him. Zuma, it appears, may even have sent his lawyer to Paris to find out if Shaik had been using his name improperly.

You’d think that a judge taking the time to clarify his own ruling would be enough, but it wasn’t. Barely anyone even bothers to remember that he did that. And by the time the judge said it, the damage was already done. Zuma had been fired, setting in play all the elements for his machine gun dance to the Union Buildings.

The seeds of so much of what is wrong with this country today were sown there, in 2005.

I’ll spell out my point: Zuma was fired for a case in which he was not found guilty and his guilt was not even relevant. You may find that hard to believe, but go and read the ruling yourself.

Once Squires clarified his judgment, Cosatu demanded that Zuma be reinstated. But they were ignored, much like Mbeki had always ignored them.

If you’ve missed the irony, it’s this: we live daily in a country in which civil servants are suspected of massive corruption, much of which could be proven if subjected to the scrutiny of the courts. Most of the time, that never happens. This was the case long before Zuma became president, and was possibly at its worst under Mbeki. And yet Zuma was fired, in effect prevented from a near-certain rise to the presidency, on the basis of the flimsiest of pretexts.

It’s understandable that people might have been horrified at the thought of Zuma becoming the president. I certainly was. I was programmed to believe that a president, at the very least, should have gone to school. I’d forgotten that Abraham Lincoln never went to school and that Adolf Hitler did go to school. Also, the idea of someone with multiple wives running the country filled me with distaste, too, because, I must have been telling myself, I was not that kind of black.

But the truth is that I gloried in reporting on Zuma’s downfall with all the same glee as everyone else in the media at the time. We simply didn’t like him. He simply wasn’t good enough. We’d decided that Zuma would be no good and do no good, and so we read what we wanted in Judge Squires’ ruling, and ignored the old man when he tried to tell us we’d got it wrong.

In many ways the president has turned out to be quite measured, reserved and tolerant of us. Better than we may have expected him to be, and more forgiving than I would probably have been in the same position.

How, as the media, can we expect to be able to look at Zuma in the eye today and expect him to trust us, and live up to any kind of expectation for good, when all we’ve ever prophesied was inevitable doom?

What could he possibly do that would satisfy us? And should he be acting and working for our approval in any case after we failed to tell the truth about his story more than ten years ago, and are determined to keep telling it the way it suits us – a way that is simply not the truth? Even the once-celebrated Max du Preez found himself so deeply married to the myth of the “generally corrupt relationship” that he left the Independent Group in a blaze of righteous indignation this year when his employers attempted to apologise on his behalf for repeating the lie in a column.

The facts about what really happened in 2005 should be in the public domain by now, and commonly known. But even the Wikipedia entry has it wrong.

Has anything about the way we’ve reported on Jacob Zuma and anyone allied to him in the ANC improved since 2005?

You only need to scan the recent headlines to see that it hasn’t.

There is no doubt the upgrades to Zuma’s private home in Nkandla saw unacceptably obscene amounts of public money being spent on the project – that is no longer in dispute. But who can honestly say they know for a fact that Zuma knew what Public Works was doing and how it was dealing with the matter? Did he tell anyone what to charge and how much to pay? We don’t know, but most of us assume he did. It’s unprofessional reporting that would not stand up in a courtroom.

The closest Zuma has come to construction was when he was breaking rocks on Robben Island, but now we pretend there weren’t project managers, site managers and oversight bodies at Nkandla. We choose to look at it as if there’s no possible way he isn’t guilty.

Maybe that’s right. But we don’t know.

We’ve done that before – and been wrong.

The hatred towards Zuma means that little he does or says is ever reported on positively. He can give a speech for two hours, but the only thing anyone is likely to read about what he said was something “controversial”. If someone is determined to paint you in the worst light possible all the time, what chance do you have?

How can we expect Zuma to rely on us, the media, when we have never rectified the basic facts of his constitutionally presumed innocence from 2005 onwards?

One can only speculate on the kind of president Zuma may have been had he not had to combat not only the infighting and divisions in the ANC (most notably the faction that ensured he was fired in the first place), but the media’s vilification of him too. It’s likely history will not treat his presidential terms kindly, because accountability for wrongdoing remains largely absent from his administration. If we’ve ended up with the worst possible Zuma, then we need to understand our role in that – but I’m also able to say that had I been fired for something I had not been found guilty of, I would have been far worse than Zuma is today. I would have had a real axe to grind. I would have had my revenge.

Zuma has allowed Mbeki his place in the sun, and hasn’t pursued him ruthlessly for the truth of what really went down in the Arms Deal. Today, Mbeki can make his snide comments about how the country is being run, and Zuma lets him be. The same can be said of many others. The same chief justice that many of us in the media claimed Zuma had appointed to be his lapdog is the same chief justice who took him on in public about the executive encroaching unacceptably on the judiciary. The same public protector whose report has been such a headache for him is the same one Zuma appointed.

He’s not a perfect president, and could be far better, but never is he given a shred of credit.

If anyone doubts that the media has an implicit agenda to oppose Zuma, have a look at how it treats and portrays anyone who is pro-Zuma, and then examine its same treatment and portrayal of those who want to dig Zuma’s grave. There can be no better example than Julius Malema, who has been both of those people over the past eight years.

When Malema was the man willing to kill for Zuma, the media portrayed him as a fool, a dangerous warmonger whose poor school results needed to be dug up and mocked. Every shred of evidence of corruption was dug up about Malema and global media awards were handed out for that work.

Now that he has become Zuma’s number one enemy, he has fans aplenty in the media. He’s commonly written about with the complimentary adjectives “effervescent”, “canny”, “strategic”, “relentless,” “popular”, “uncompromising”, “charismatic”, “fearless”, even “principled”. On Twitter, one can see an influential editor agreeing that he and the EFF are a “necessary irritation”. Now, stories about Malema’s allegedly ongoing corruption appear one day, only to disappear the next.


Because Zuma must get what’s coming to him, regardless of where it’s coming from.

Zwelinzima Vavi was the same. He was attacked when he called Zuma an “unstoppable tsunami” and was 100% behind Zuma. The media hated him then. Now that he’s part of those calling for regime change, he’s a media darling, a hero, despite being caught with his pants down after promising a junior worker a better job and life, only to induce her to have sex with him on his table, literally offering us a metaphor for how he screws the poor.

Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi after speaking at Yeoville Recreation Centre, Johannesburg, 16 May 2015, on People’s Coalition Against Xenophobia Commemoration of the 2008/15 xenophobia Victims. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi after speaking at Yeoville Recreation Centre, Johannesburg, 16 May 2015, on People’s Coalition Against Xenophobia

Commemoration of the 2008/15 xenophobia Victims. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

Last week, when Malema played his game of bluff to call for his day in court, he seemed to fool many a journalist, who compared him unfavourably with Zuma, who was “ducking and diving” from his day in court.

With the past that Zuma has had, I actually don’t blame him for expending so much time, energy and our shared national resources to stay out of court. He still has powerful enemies, and South Africa was told in 2008 by yet another judge, Chris Nicholson, that the corruption charges brought against him were politically motivated. He threw out that case, once again sending the media into despair. Zuma still has many powerful enemies, and those enemies still have access to the levers of control in the media.

After years, the DA finally got their hands on the so-called spy tapes last year, and we’re still waiting to hear if there’s anything there to justify the millions spent on getting their hands on it. After recent history, I wouldn’t be willing to bet that there’s enough there to justify charging Zuma with anything again. But fortunately I’m not a prosecutor or a judge, simply a humble newspaperman who’s grudgingly come to wonder how fair we have been to this one man, who has survived the worst that’s been thrown at him, and will probably survive far more.

In 2009 Zuma accepted “very substantial damages” from Britain’s Guardian newspaper over an article that suggested he was a rapist and guilty of corruption and bribery arising out of his involvement in the $5 billion arms deal. If the Guardian couldn’t get away with saying it, what makes us think we can? We don’t lose any opportunity to remind people that Zuma stood accused of rape and we still portray Kwezi as a victim despite her credibility being completely discredited in court.

The media has long played the role of unelected opposition to government in South Africa, taking its constitutional duty of being a watchdog to levels beyond what the fourth estate is meant. One hears numerous justifications from editors and journalists for why they give the DA a soft ride and focus all their efforts on discrediting the ANC, but if that’s what we’re about, then we should admit upfront that we’re DA newsletters. Then people would know.

If we’re as unbiased, fair and objective as we claim to be, then why is any wrongdoing in the DA barely ever mentioned in the press? It’s because the “educated classes” who work in the media want regime change “for the sake of democracy”. But the DA is also a ruling party, in the Western Cape, and scandals about its running of that province are like hen’s teeth. Admittedly, the DA has a lot to prove and so is going to run a tight ship, but it can’t be perfect.

Not very long ago, I was travelling in Paarl and came across a story in a local newspaper that the DA mayor of Drakenstein, Gesie van Deventer, had used a large sum of municipal money to secure her private farm. Locally, there was something of an outcry about this, but I did not pay too much attention to the details at the time, because I thought I’d read more about it in the national press. I never did. The story was killed long before it could reach that point. Now, I don’t know if the story is true, but when I read it, it seemed like it could be a mini-Nkandla. But no one was interested and the story went nowhere. If such a story were portrayed properly, people might feel indignant about it. But the media is the gatekeeper, and perhaps it decided that the world isn’t ready to hear about anything unflattering to the DA.

Even my own paper, The Citizen, was for years edited and led by a man who promptly joined the DA and became a councillor after his retirement from years of “objective” reporting of the news. This was perhaps a classic example of cadre deployment by a party that has viciously condemned the ruling party for the same policy. Martin Williams will probably find himself moving higher up the ranks in that party in the years to come. There’s nothing wrong with that, and he certainly has every right to express himself politically as a free citizen (pardon the pun), but had an editor in his position joined the ANC so soon after editing a national newspaper, you can only imagine the level of scorn he may have been subjected to by his former peers in the industry and the rest of our newspaper-reading public.

The reason most of our newspaper-reading public appears to be anti-ANC is because most of our newspapers are written for those who happen to be anti-ANC. Many of us in the media bemoan the fact that South Africa appears to be filled with unsophisticated masses who don’t know what’s being written about daily in the papers. But congratulations are in order for the man on the street – for the ANC’s rank file – who has consistently supported Zuma despite the sustained barrage of propaganda against him. The man on the street pays little heed to an agenda that seems to be all about regime change.

A man like Williams faces little condemnation despite the fact that the paper he ran like an extension of his own soul was so clearly pro-DA and he put any doubts about that beyond question when he was handsomely rewarded with a position by the DA. I would like to know why no other newspaper reported on the fact that someone who had been the editor-at-large of The Citizen was suddenly a DA councilor a few weeks after resigning from his prominent position in the media.

At The Citizen, I made it a point, in the interests of transparency, to publicise his political career move, but no one else considered it a story.

Williams does not have his position today in the DA based on merit – he was never a politician in his life. It’s a reward for his years of loyal service to the DA. I was reporter, and later political editor, of The Citizen while he was editor, and every DA press release was published in the paper on a daily basis. But a paper such as The New Age that has made it clear from the outset that it exists to portray the positive aspects of government, in order to provide balance to the media spectrum, has been vilified, ridiculed, dismissed and labelled untrustworthy before even a single one of its articles are read. Simply by being “pro-government” it is tagged as “untrustworthy” by the rest of the industry.

But at least it is being honest. You can pick it up and know how to read it and understand it. What it publishes is subject to the same Press Code as the rest of the industry, and it can’t get away with simply publishing falsehoods. When the rest of us say we shouldn’t be judged under a blanket umbrella of distrust by government and that government should rely on the media to self-govern and be governed by the Press Code, surely we should extend the same principle to The New Age? But do we? Is The New Age judged by its content and each of the individual articles it runs? And where does that leave our argument about our own ability to regulate ourselves, our own bias and ability to portray an accurate picture of the general reality of life in South Africa?

We pour scorn on The New Age for running so much government advertising, but show me a newspaper that doesn’t run state advertising, and doesn’t rely on it to survive. The biggest recipient of state advertising has been the Sunday Times, not The New Age.

It’s not just government that’s still new to getting democracy right. The media is, too. And the bottom line is: we should be willing to try harder to be better at this thing called democracy, and one can only hope that, in return, somehow, our government will be too.

I’ve been party to the sinister agenda against Zuma, and can only apologise for that. I’m not saying I’m suddenly his biggest fan, but it’s time to admit I’ve been party to the unfairness, along with many of my colleagues.

Perhaps all of us should admit the same and try to move on after excising the festering tumour that we’ve been nursing like a vital organ. But it’s not. It’s dangerous, and needs to go.

*This is an open letter and has not been edited by IOL

**Motale is the editor of The Citizen

*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.


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