Zuma undoes good showing
Fair-minded South Africans would have been glad to see President Jacob Zuma exude so much confidence during his State of the Nation address last week in Cape Town.
It was by far his best speech in parliament since coming to power in 2009 and would probably go a long way in convincing some of the sceptical ANC branches that he deserves re-election as party leader at the national conference in December.
As things stand, Zuma goes to the Mangaung conference in a far stronger position than, say, two years ago.
He has avoided many of the personal controversies that marred his early days in office and his family appears less in the news for wrong reasons (though the recent comments attributed to one of his wives, MaNtuli, effectively blaming teenage pregnancies on child grants, would have embarrassed party policy-makers).
One of the key charges against the Zuma administration in its earlier days was that it was too soft on corruption, and the president was accused of being too scared to act against ministers and senior government officials accused of wrongdoing.
Now his supporters can convincingly dismiss this perception by pointing out that Zuma has not only authorised high-level investigations into corruption allegations in key state institutions, but has also fired a couple of ministers and suspended a national police commissioner on suspicion of maladministration.
His cabinet's intervention in Limpopo, though its intentions would remain suspicious to those seeking to limit his rule to a single term, would surely win him the backing of trade unions, which have long complained about the allegedly kleptocratic tendencies of those who run the province.
At ANC level, Zuma has finally woken up to the fact that the nonexistence of a strong centre has encouraged ill-discipline and anarchy within his party and, by extension, his government.
But there are many other areas that the president still needs to improve on if he is to convince the party faithful, and indeed the general electorate, that he deserves to lead the country beyond 2014.
One such area is the way he communicates his message.
At the risk of being ridiculed as one of the "gifted ones" - a term the president used to refer to journalists and political analysts who criticised the manner in which he delivered the keynote speech at the ruling party's 100th birthday celebrations last month - I must say that Zuma can be his own worst enemy sometimes.
In a week in which the president should be basking in very rare glory after such an impressive State of the Nation address his office once again finds itself having to "clarify" comments made by Zuma in a press interview.
Remarks by the president that his government seeks to review the powers of the Constitutional Court caused a great deal of confusion on Monday, leading to claims by opposition parties that the ANC government seeks to do away with constitutional democracy as we know it.
It took the president's spokesman, Mac Maharaj, to explain that what Zuma was talking about was no new measure.
The president, he said, was referring to a well-publicised cabinet decision to do an assessment of the impact of the court's judgments on the transformation of South African society.
"This must therefore not be viewed as an attempt by the government to undermine the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law entrenched in our constitution," explained Maharaj.
In a separate incident, during his SABC interview on Sunday, the president's answers to questions about the future of provinces suggested that the status quo would remain.
This is despite the fact that the ANC, in at least three major gatherings, expressed grave reservations about the effectiveness of this level of government - with some of its allies calling for their scrapping.
The government even mandated the ministry responsible to conduct a study on the usefulness of provinces and whether, if the system remains, their number should not be reduced.
The general public understanding has been that the matter would come up for debate at the ANC policy conference in June.
But if Zuma's comments on TV on Sunday are anything to go by the current set-up of nine provinces would remain as it was - a decision taken after careful consideration at Codesa.
Was the president merely expressing his personal preference here? Was it an ANC or government position? It wasn't too clear to me on Sunday.
As head of state, Zuma's every word is always important for those seeking to understand the government's policy positions and intention. Any ambiguity from him can cause confusion and untold damage to the country's image.
It is, therefore, important that his messages are clear and do not have to be "clarified" by his office at a later stage.