Jacob Zuma thrives on bad press. He loves to hate the media, blaming a collective of newspapers, radio and television stations for defaming his character to the tune of more than R60 million, finding him guilty ÃƒÂ¡nd sentencing him without a trial, quoting him out of context and just generally “demonising” him.
But somehow, this is all working for him. Zuma seems to have re-written the handbook on how to turn negative reports to your advantage, a feat President Thabo Mbeki is yet to accomplish.
“Zuma never tried to quash bad publicity Ã¢Â€Â“ he seemed to thrive on it,” says author and columnist Fred Khumalo, who is currently writing a biography on the struggle hero, with the working title “Umshini Wami Ã¢Â€Â“ The life and times of Jacob Zuma”.
“On the extreme end of the scale, whenever the media tried to challenge Mbeki or one of his preferred cabinet ministers like (Health Minister) Manto Tshabalala-Msimang or Essop Pahad (Minister in the Presidency), Mbeki threatens to pull advertising from a newspaper like the Sunday Times,” Khumalo adds.
“South Africans love an underdog, they are always in the side of the underdog. Zuma appeared as this person whose been conspired against, he was a victim, and people, many of whom were unhappy with the inscrutable president of ours, thought they could relate with him.”
Khumalo says media coverage of Zuma started intensifying in 2004 when the Hefer Commission of Inquiry was appointed to investigate allegations that former chief prosecutor Bulelani Ngcuka was an apartheid spy. The role the media played in the start of this inquiry is conspicuous. It was the result of a story leaked to the City Press by Ranjeni Munusamy, then a Sunday Times journalist and now Zuma’s spokeswoman. Her own newspaper refused to run with the report, causing her to take it to the City Press. The apparent smear campaign against Ngcuka came after he announced there was prima facie evidence of corruption against Zuma, but that no charges would be laid as yet.
Much has happened since the attention turned to Zuma in 2004, most notably the fact that corruption charges were eventually laid against him, just to be thrown out by the courts again in 2006, not to mention the rape charge of which he was acquitted. (He has been recharged since !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM went to print. Ã¢Â€Â“ Editor).
!_LT_STRONG’They love to demonise us’!_LT_/STRONG
Asked to comment on the role the media played in his high profile, Munusamy told The Media: “I do not want to engage in such a conversation. It’s just that they love to demonise us,” reinforcing Zuma’s status of the victim.
Professor Nixon Kariithi, associate professor of media studies and journalism at Wits University, did some research on the intensification of Zuma media reports during the period of the rape trial, using archival data from the Sabinet SA Media database managed by researchers at the University of the Free State.
“The Zuma coverage surpassed even the best of South African international news moments,” wrote Kariithi, saying his trial received far more coverage than events such as the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. Zuma had also become a popular caricature Ã¢Â€Â“ in 2002, there were nine cartoons of Zuma in the print media, compared to some 580 cartoons of him between January 2003 and the rape verdict day in May 2006.
The influential Pretoria Press Club named Zuma Newsmaker of the Year in 2005/2006, causing political analyst Judith February of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa to describe Zuma as a “spindoctor’s dream”.
Professor Sipho Seepe, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, says Zuma’s rise in popularity is due to many factors.
“In a sense, the media also raised Mbeki’s inconsistencies and selective dealings with corruption… and Zuma exploited that, coming out as a victim,” says Seepe.
While Zuma has mastered the skill to capitalise on bad publicity, Mbeki remains confused as to how to get the media to work in his favour.
Seepe points out that Zuma has been accessible on many levels, but the same could not be said about the president.
“What seems to have escaped Mbeki’s notice is that Zuma had started working on his image as statesman almost as soon as he took office,” writes William Gumede in his book, “Thabo Mbeki and the battle for the soul of the ANC”.
In the run-up to the African National Congress national conference in Polokwane, Mbeki suddenly made himself available for several media interviews. Not only was his strategy too little too late, but also, he seemed incapable of making any newsworthy statements.
The Times daily described his interview on SABC radio, which was stopped at 8.15pm after it was supposed to have run until 9pm, as a “damp squid”. The Sunday Times was granted an interview with the president Ã¢Â€Â“ but it was so boring, it did not even get a front-page teaser, not to mention a front-page story.
Zuma, on the other hand, gets the publicity he seeks, even if it is when he is apologising for controversial statements about Aids or gays.
“Even after the rape case and all the stupid things he said, he did apologise and somehow he continued to play the fool, showing ordinary people that he is a human being,” says Khumalo.
Zuma has also managed to secure some positive coverage in the Afrikaans press, making front-page headlines in Beeld twice in March 2006. In the first story, he expressed concern about farm murders while the second article was about a braai with several Afrikaner cultural icons, including filmmaker Leon Schuster and singer (and one of South Africa’s most popular bloggers) Steve Hofmeyr, who described Zuma as an “honest man… a straightforward person”. The braai was organised by Elzilda Becker, publisher of Afrikaans-English lifestyle magazine De Kat, which also featured Zuma on its cover.
Marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk summarises it perfectly when he says Zuma has created a strong brand for himself.
“Zuma is a natural born marketer with a firm grasp of salesmanship, communications and branding,” Moerdyk wrote in an online column.
“And while the media and his opponents don’t miss any opportunities to wail and gnash their teeth at his rape charge, taking showers to prevent HIV/Aids and being accused of fraud and corruption, Zuma the marketer seems to know that his brand is powerful enough and enjoys sufficient loyalty to make his ‘consumers’ overlook his faults, no matter how glaring they may be.”
Ã¢Â–Â This article first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine as “Zuma: Media manipulator”.