Schizoid Zuma at odds with party election plan
A week is indeed a very long time in politics. Barely seven days ago, President Jacob Zuma was on a charm offensive, praising the local and foreign media for its contribution "to the progress that South Africa has made in moving from a pariah state status to a thriving vibrant young democracy".
Addressing editors and senior journalists at a rare breakfast meeting in Pretoria last Tuesday, Zuma waxed lyrical about media initiatives such as Primedia Broadcasting and Independent Newspapers' Lead SA campaign; the SABC's Touching Lives campaign and eNCA's Against All Odds show.
He praised the fourth estate for its "important role" in the campaign against HIV/Aids which, he said, resulted in the government implementing a massive roll-out of antiretroviral drugs to those who needed them.
For a president who has been the focus of many media stories relating to graft, Zuma surprised many in the room when he "acknowledged the contribution of the media" in the fight against corruption.
"While many corruption cases arise from government investigations, many others came about through the hard work of the media," the president said.
Did these remarks signal a change of attitude and approach towards journalists by the Zuma administration, many of us in the room wondered.
For years now, Zuma has had a fraught relationship with the fourth estate, often accusing the media of treating him and his government unfairly.
But, with elections around the corner, word in the corridors of power is that Zuma and other government leaders are under pressure from the ANC to jerk up their public image - which means they need to have a less hostile relationship with journalists and media houses.
But any belief that Zuma's remarks at Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House a week ago marked the beginning of a less confrontational engagement between the p resident and the media was dispelled during his meeting with journalism students yesterday.
It was certainly a different Zuma who turned up for a meeting with Tshwane University of Technology journalism students in Cape Town yesterday.
In contrast to the praise he heaped on the industry a week earlier, Zuma decried the lack of "patriotic reporting" in this country.
According to journalists who attended the meeting, the president told students that local journalists were too negative in their reporting and that he had been impressed by how the media in Mexico reported positively about their country.
Journalist Andisiwe Makinana, who wrote about the interaction on Twitter, reported Zuma as saying "whenever he travels [abroad] people have great things to say about South Africa", but when he is in the country "he feels like running away" because of the media reports.
"Zuma says media claim to be watchdogs of society, but no one elected them; communities don't determine or have a say in what is reported," Makinana wrote.
The contradictions in these two sets of statements reflect a Presidency that has no clear strategy of how to deal with the media.
The president clearly feels aggrieved by the local media he believes is not giving his administration its due credit, even in areas where it has done well over the past four years.
But whose fault is it?
While no self-respecting media house would agree to the 70% good news formula of sunshine journalism that is currently being punted by SABC acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng at the public broadcaster, none refuses to air or publish government's views on issues.
Zuma seldom speaks to local media, instead preferring to grant interviews to selected foreign press, the SABC or any of the other smaller broadcasters he regards as friendly to him.
Local political correspondents and editors have many stories to tell about how their requests for interviews often do not even get a response.
He cannot, therefore, accuse the media of censoring his voice or that of his government.