William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

The intellectually supple Mr Zuma does some semantic yoga

It is sometimes difficult to follow President Jacob Zuma’s explanations of events. His utterances can be so convoluted that the thread of logic is all but invisible. Or else they are patently contradictory.

At other times he makes plainly incorrect assertions that are never retracted. So they lie there, littering his political reputation like discarded used tissues — mostly harmless but nevertheless icky.

One might, if one were mean — and to judge by the vitriol on social media, many South Africans are foul-mouthed, bullying monsters — just dismiss Zuma as stupid. That would be to perpetuate the mistake that caused Thabo Mbeki and his supporters to so disastrously underestimate the canny operator who with surgical precision unseated the former president.

Alternatively, if one had a generous spirit, one might ascribe Zuma’s verbal clumsiness to a lack of a formal education. Or to the vagaries that inevitably surface when one thinks in one language, the metaphorically rich one, but speaks in another — one that revels in precision and nuance.

No matter how one explains Zuma’s gaffes, they can be a source of amusement or bewilderment. At times, a source even of dangerous ambiguity, given that they come from a leader whose unrebuked supporters, when they perceive him to be under siege, have threatened to “kill for Zuma”.

On a practical level, it has meant that his previous spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, spent a lot of time tidying up after various Zuma utterances. That was a useful service that his new spokespersons, of which there have been two in less than a year, seem to be less inclined to do.

For example, at the African business leaders’ dinner last month, where Zuma spoke hours after firing finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, the president made a series of bizarre and incorrect assertions about Africa. Africa, he said, was the biggest continent in the world and could contain all the other continents within it.

This is, of course, what happens when politicians discard the prepared speech. Using their jawbones they dig themselves into a hole.

But for unknown reasons, the Presidency’s spin doctors made no attempt to explain or correct Zuma’s errors. Since it was a particularly poor speech — rambling and at times incoherent — their reluctance to try to explain the inexplicable is perhaps understandable.

Inexplicable, too, in what was unsaid. For the one thing that everyone had expected to hear that evening was the reasoning behind Nene’s exit and maybe some comforting clucks of reassurance. Instead, the cabinet reshuffle was not mentioned at all by Zuma.

However, this past weekend in an interview with eNCA, it was Zuma himself who belatedly tried to put the plummeting currency Humpty together again. It was a “gross exaggeration” that the Nene sacking had spooked the global markets, he said.

People were “over-reacting” to the entirely justified move. “We took a decision that he (Nene) heads the Brics Bank, as it needs an experienced person.”

Now that’s a series of statements that define Zuma’s … Umm, how should one phrase it? Intellectual suppleness?

Firstly, if it was such a great decision to sack Nene and replace him with a political lightweight who has not even made it onto the African National Congress’ 86-person national executive committee, why the volte-face? Since a market over-reaction invariably corrects itself, there was no need for Zuma then to fire Nene’s replacement and hastily throw former finance minister Pravin Gordhan into the breach.

Secondly, there is something here that looks suspiciously like a terminological inexactitude, as Winston Churchill would have phrased it. While the Brics Bank certainly does need an “experienced person” to head it, Nene was never going to head it.

The head of the bank is based in Shanghai. Nene is intended to head the regional office in Johannesburg.

And Zuma doesn’t have the power to make this appointment. Nene has merely been nominated. The appointment has yet to be made by the participating Brics nations and it must be galling to Zuma that his Bric colleagues have not as yet hastened to alleviate his plight by fast-tracking Nene.

There was more semantic yoga from the president this week. On Monday in an SA Broadcasting Corporation interview he denied that he had any ambitions for a third term as ANC president.

Then he niftily qualified his apparent indifference to power. “All I’ve said is that I can’t go for a third term, the ANC decides on who must do what.”

In other words, “Please, twist my rubber arm”. Intellectual pliancy is clearly far more important than intellectual clarity, in a politician.

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