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Is Zuma using Gareth Cliff meeting as a PR exercise?

5FM jock Gareth Cliff recently penned, or rather, let his fingers dance on a keyboard and published a letter to the government on his website. The letter, Dear Government was a sensational hit. It was forwarded to me several times by people who to a large extent share the same views as Gareth. Since Gareth wrote the letter, the president has requested a meeting with him. All cynicism aside, this is a great gesture.

After all, the president is a politician and has an image to keep and his handlers have a responsibility to maintain that image. The letter might have been a public-relations nightmare they must have thought, so, how can we quickly turn around this potentially bad PR to work for us? Of course this is the cynical side of me when it comes to politics.

Our president is a master of public relations. If we recall, his approval ratings were not great before the elections, not long after that they had improved drastically, even TIME magazine had a cover story about him that was filled with glowing praises. One could be excused for thinking that it was a press release sent straight from Luthuli House.

It is for this reason that I ask the question, is the president using Gareth as a public-relations exercise? One can’t think but compare our current president to our last president, Thabo Mbeki. The difference in style is as far as the east is from the west. As some know, I am a fan of the man even though I am not a fan of his style. Not many of us can imagine Mbeki inviting Gareth for a chat after writing such a critical letter. One of two things would have happened. He would have simply ignored Gareth. Two, he would have penned the most scathing of blogs on ANC Today about Gareth as he was prone to do. In that respect, Zuma’s approach is to be commended. But will it achieve anything? Probably not except for goodwill towards the presidency. (Goodwill was in no way a reference to the Zulu king.)

The president will be seen as a great leader because he is prepared to listen to his critics. Tick. Listening to one’s critics is a good thing. When the meeting happens, it will receive a great deal of coverage. Tick. The presidency gets good PR. After it has happened there will be a great many people applauding the president’s gesture. See? He’s not such a bad guy. It’s going to win him hearts. Tick.

But there is an enormous difference between extending an olive branch to your critics and doing something about what you are actually being criticised about. The president speaks a lot about corruption but we don’t see anything being done about it. The president must excuse us for thinking that he can’t be that serious about it. He is not only president so that relatives benefit simply because of their proximity to power. That’s just how it works. People close to the president will get offered all sorts of thing by all sorts with all sorts of intentions simply because those people could open doors to the president. This does not happen because the president’s relatives are corrupt.

In his letter Cliff asks the president to stop corruption, to stop complaining about the media, to give up BEE, to stop squabbling over power, to stop renaming things and not to think that the ANC will have power forever. On the last point the president will disagree with Gareth vehemently since Zuma believes that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes back. I don’t see how they will come to an agreement, especially since Gareth doesn’t believe Jesus will be coming back.

Our president has a knack and skill for saying the right things all the time. He leaves you feeling good after you have listened to him speak. Once he has left, you wonder what he said, then you wonder what he committed to exactly and what he is doing to make sure that what he told you actually happens. His words speak loud and they are full of charm. A few months ago, on Father’s Day, he was a guest speaker at my church, no, not Rhema. He spoke well. He was warm, particularly when he spoke of his children. He was a father and your heart went out to him.

I’m glad that Gareth will be meeting the president. I especially appreciate the fact that he is going “with a sense of optimism” as he said to me on Twitter this morning when I said his meeting with the president will “unfortunately only yield comforting things because he always says the right things” and that’s about where it stops. I pray and hope that I am wrong.