WELCOME to Tweet of the Week. Every Friday I use this column to hand out an award to one person who has tweeted something of significance. There are no strict rules, only that the tweet in question must offer an important insight, define a debate (notorious or otherwise) or mark an occasion.
This week the Tweet of the Week (again) goes to @SAPresident, although not exactly for his most recent tweet:
"Promoting a caring society as a guest of the Evangelical ... in Giyani, Limpopo."
Profile: Jacob Zuma is president of South Africa and of the African National Congress (ANC). He was elected to the presidency after a bitter battle with former president Thabo Mbeki, who was removed from office by the ANC following Zuma’s victory at the party’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane. Zuma was re-elected as the ANC’s leader in 2012 at the Mangaung elective conference and will stand as its presidential candidate in the 2014 national elections, for a second term. He has about 314,000 followers on Twitter.
Citation: Zuma won Tweet of the Week in September last year, for doing exactly nothing. He had not tweeted anything for three months at the time. By Thursday this week, his last tweet was on October 6 2013, about five months ago.
Where is Zuma, exactly? Twitter might not constitute the be-all and end-all of political activity, but taken seriously it can provide an insight into where someone’s head is at — and Zuma’s seems to be anywhere but in this election campaign.
Essentially, the president used his state of the nation address to announce officially that he wasn’t here. He rattled off a series of generic achievements, seamlessly merging his own administration’s performance with those that preceded him, before suggesting that he would unveil new plans and programmes at his next state of the nation address, after the May 7 elections. Basically, he was saying: "See you all in a few months for a meaningful discussion; in the meantime, chew on this."
Around that address, there has been much talk of Zuma being burnt out and exhausted. Most of that seemed to relate to a visit to a Durban hospital, which presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj described as "a scheduled visit" for an annual check-up. But Zuma then missed the latter half of the second registration weekend, choosing rather to "relax" at his R200m Fort Knox-meets-cattle-kraal compound in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. Elsewhere it was reported the endless stream of people demanding his affections at his private home was taking its toll, and that his wives, in turn, were at each other’s throats.
Adding to his personal concerns, at the beginning of February an investigation was launched into the role his son Duduzane Zuma played in a deadly car crash. That couldn’t have helped.
Suggest Zuma is as much a patriarchal chief as he is a democratically elected president, and the ANC will round on you — but even the party itself would be hard-pressed to deny that his informal network is starting to take as big a toll on his well-being as his more formal obligations.
It was reported on Thursday that Zuma has pulled out of a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, to be held at London’s Westminster Abbey, in spite of the royal event having previously been postponed to accommodate him. Asked to comment, Maharaj only said: "His diary is always subject to change. This is a very, very busy period." Well, not so busy that he cannot relax at home. When relaxing takes precedence over official duties, something is not right.
Zuma was also criticised for not attending the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. The Presidency cited "work pressures at home". But what are these pressures? There is little public evidence of anything apart from the standard fare.
It is true the political environment has been fairly saturated with the goings-on of other political parties. Between "DAgang" and the various manifesto launches of other parties, the ANC and government have taken something of a back seat, apart from the state of the nation address and budget day, which are set in stone. But on the proactive side, neither has done much.
It is not quite clear why Zuma is on Twitter at all. It is a medium entirely unsuited to the man, and you can be sure he does not craft his own words. It is a proxy, a polite way of pretending he takes the platform seriously. Neither is there any make-or-break political reason why he should be on it at all. The Twittersphere hardly constitutes the ANC’s core constituency. His neglect of his account and the generic updates he posts to it mean he hardly sets the world on fire. No doubt he feels some obligation to be there. It’s what high-profile people do.
His lack of interest extends to Parliament, however. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has been up in arms because Zuma seems to be avoiding question time ahead of the elections. There is probably something to him not wanting to answer difficult questions, particularly about Nkandla. But he has never let that stop him before. He rarely answers in a straightforward manner anyway, and there is always the opportunity to indulge one or two "sweetheart" questions from his own party on national television. Besides, his unwillingness to talk about Nkandla is not entirely consistent — he did give comment on the subject to the media earlier this year, so he obviously feels some pressure to explain himself.
No, it appears the president would rather be anywhere but in the national spotlight.
There is another possible explanation: a decision to keep Zuma away from situations where he may be exposed. He is the face of the ANC’s campaign and that is both a plus and a minus. On the upside, he resonates powerfully with the rural poor; on the downside, he is liable to say something controversial and generate a storm of moral outrage. Perhaps it is best, the ANC thinks, to keep him as a face and only let him speak from a prepared script. One way or another, we seem to have a virtual president at the moment — there is an account but nobody is home.
As the election date approaches, Zuma will not be able to maintain his low profile. There are rallies to lead and manifestos to promote. And, with his parliamentary responsibilities either out of the way or sidestepped, he can concentrate exclusively on his political priorities.
On April 12, Zuma will turn 72. If he finishes his second term, he will be 77. Most other people will have long since retired by that age. Indeed, it was ironic indeed to listen to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announce on Wednesday that, upon retirement, South Africans will be eligible for an additional, tax-free R185,000, as the ceiling for the tax-free lump sum paid out by retirement funds was raised to R500,000. Given that the government is willing to fund Zuma’s extravagant personal lifestyle to the tune of hundreds of millions of rand, he has reason to stay in the pound seats.
Whatever the reason for Zuma’s low profile of late, be it health or strategic silence, he is creating the impression of indifference to South African politics. It must be tough being your party’s greatest asset and greatest liability at the same time. Perhaps that relentless contradiction is starting to get to the president.