LIKE all good politicians, President Jacob Zuma has mastered the art of signalling left and then going right. That’s essentially the art of saying or doing what you don’t mean — or performing with conviction an otherwise awkward task.
That is how Mr Zuma appeared as he delivered a lecture in honour of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, on Friday — confident and sincere.
But, there is always a "but".
Mr Mbeki was the main person who did not want Mr Zuma to become African National Congress (ANC) president. He was happy for Mr Zuma to have become deputy, but he would not readily hand over to Mr Zuma the presidential baton of a party he and his parents had worked hard to build.
Mr Mbeki stood for a third term as head of the party in a failed attempt to block Mr Zuma succeeding him. He had fired Mr Zuma as his deputy in 2005 on the strength of an erroneously interpreted judgment that linked Mr Zuma to a corrupt relationship with his financial adviser Schabir Shaik.
But how Mr Mbeki tried everything to suppress Mr Zuma’s rise was conveniently absent in the president’s speech on Friday.
It was a case of having come to praise Mr Mbeki, instead of having come to bury him. Praise him he did. Talking about Mr Mbeki was not going to be a difficult task for Mr Zuma, for two reasons.
First, they are contemporaries — having both been born in 1942 — and worked together in exile, especially during the 1980s, before the unbanning of the ANC. Together with Aziz Pahad and Joe Nhlanhla, Mr Mbeki and Mr Zuma were assigned by then-president Oliver Tambo to begin exploratory talks with the apartheid government in England and Switzerland.
Second, Mr Zuma has a profound ability to present a straight face as he utters words with an ironic ring. An example is when he professes his government’s focus on corruption, commitment to the rule of law and a free media — all aspects where he personally scores low points for leadership.
Going to Aliwal North on Friday, on the Eastern Cape and Free State border, Mr Zuma was under the spotlight, with critics watching with keen interest what he would say. Mr Mbeki’s mother Epainette had asked the day before what the point of honouring the former president was, when the ANC had humiliated him by hounding him out of office. But Mr Zuma had exactly the answer for that, when he praised Mr Mbeki for having accepted his 2008 recall with dignity.
Mr Zuma said: "What defined him most as a loyal cadre of the organisation and true patriot was his conduct during the difficult and devastating period of his recall from office. He accepted the decision of the ANC NEC (national executive committee). Like a true statesman, he put the country first above personal considerations. He stepped aside in a dignified manner, allowing a smooth transition to take place in government to the presidency of Comrade Kgalema Motlanthe."
Mr Zuma did himself a huge favour by touching on this part of Mr Mbeki’s biography. Otherwise the lecture would have been hollow. But it was puzzling how he left out the events before the Polokwane conference in 2007 when they took each other on. Even more intriguing is how Mr Zuma did not mention his own suffering when Mr Mbeki fired him as deputy president of SA. Mr Mbeki had tried to push Mr Zuma out of his post of ANC deputy president, but this was rejected by ANC branch delegates at the 2005 national general council. Had the delegates not revolted, Mr Zuma would certainly have been history.
But Mr Zuma, being the cunning politician that he is, is well aware of who his enemy is with only a month to go to the Mangaung conference.
That enemy is not Mr Mbeki, who four years ago he described as a "dead snake" that comrades should stop beating.
The ANC has held 11 lectures for all its past presidents. What is left is a lecture to honour Mr Zuma — to be held in the Free State next month. The question on many lips now is who will deliver the Zuma lecture? Will the ANC give the task to Mr Motlanthe, the deputy president? That would be a killer move, placing Mr Motlanthe in an awkward corner as he would have to speak in honour of the man he may contest for the ANC presidency in Mangaung.
The past 11 lectures gave Mr Zuma a platform that became a campaign tool ahead of Mangaung. Most of the lectures were hardly noteworthy. He was criticised for botching Nelson Mandela’s in July by delivering what sounded and read like the bare facts, gravely lacking interpretation and insight.
The lectures were an opportunity for the ANC to connect with its supporters, to market and entrench the 100-year-old brand. But too often they turned into a Zuma affair. Every month, Mr Zuma was guaranteed an ANC platform and a carefully screened audience to these invitation-only lectures.
But Mr Mbeki’s absence at the function of his own honouring — his office said he was away on legitimate business — shows he does not take such events seriously.
There may well be far more important things for the man who was named the African of the year on Friday, than being present when being showered with praises.