President Jacob Zuma speaks in the National Assembly after the debate on his state of the nation address.  Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
President Jacob Zuma speaks in the National Assembly last month after the conclusion of the debate on his state of the nation address. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s animosity towards the South African media was forged in three stages.

The initial conflict was born of a confrontation with the National Prosecuting Authority in 2003. At the time, director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka privately briefed a group of black editors against Zuma before declaring that, while he believed the state had a "prima facie" case against him, it was not confident enough in its evidence to proceed to court.

At the time, Zuma said: "This was definitely no ordinary media briefing; it was a character assassination exercise." It has stayed with him ever since.

Reflecting on it in 2007, he reminisced, "I believe that we will never truly know just how much that event altered the course of the history of our country. Generally, we have a situation where some journalists have become active participants in the events unfolding in the country. The end result is the blurring of the lines between fact and opinion."

The second instalment came in 2006 when Zuma’s rape trial — a brutal political attempt to smear his reputation by his opponents — saw great swathes of his most personal life put on public display, along with much ridicule and contempt.

On the day of his acquittal he made an impromptu speech to the crowd gathered outside the court: "I said I did not do it (rape) and I am not guilty, but the media did something unusual. They tried me in a court of public opinion and found me guilty. They tarnished my image. They swore at me and called me names. They did not wait for the court to find me guilty. They were not alone in this, but with political analysts. They called them to poke fun at me on television. Others did not do it intentionally but were sent by those hiding behind those who had ulterior motives. I kept my word — I wanted my day in court. They tried to confuse the nation and turn them against me. They were instructed by my enemies to spread nasty rumours."

That was Zuma at his angriest.

Finally, there was Polokwane in 2007. The political life-or-death battle between him and former president Thabo Mbeki left deep and enduring scars. But he is a wily old fox, is Zuma.

"The outcome of the 52nd national conference in Polokwane," Zuma said in 2008, "is a most recent example of the media yet again becoming a victim of its own propaganda and manipulation.… They indicate a general trend within most mainstream media institutions to adopt positions, cloaked as sober and impartial observation, that are antagonistic to the democratic movement and its agenda for fundamental social, political and economic transformation."

And so the scene was set for an ongoing confrontation between the president and fourth estate, which, formally and informally, has played itself out over the past eight years.

It is hard to look past the president’s animosity towards the media when trying objectively to evaluate just what role he thinks it should play in a democracy, were he to feel entirely neutral about journalism and those who practise the craft.

There are, however, a number of indications.

Of these, the most infamous was his assertion in 2013 that South African journalists should practise what he called "patriotic reporting", something he had observed in Mexico (he was speaking to journalism students at the time). It is forgotten in the wash but the president evidenced the deeply problematic nature of his "patriotism" as he argued, quite literally, that facts on topics such as crime and corruption should be kept from the public by the media in order to better promote the country.

Zuma said the Mexican president told him "that, my friend, is dirty linen, and should not be told in public". The alternative, Zuma quoted Mexico’s leader, "is called patriotic reporting here".

How this must have appealed to Zuma, whose horse blinkers ensure he sees himself and the ANC only as unimpeachable forces for good, inherently virtuous and deserving of praise.

Often the president likes to imagine himself as a journalist. He has said before, "If I were a journalist, I would write and say, ‘The ANC is a wonderful organisation. It produces wonderful leaders. There is no organisation in the country that has produced leaders like the ANC, arguably on this continent’."

It is a sentiment he has repeated elsewhere: "If I were a journalist, I’d say that here in the southern tip of Africa, you have a democracy that is rooted, which is understood by the masses, a democracy in which no one is above the law."

Aaaah, if the president were a journalist, how the newspaper pages would drip with milk and honey.

Little wonder we have seen in recent years the SABC’s call for a 70% good news quotient and the arrival of The New Age newspaper, television station ANN7 and even government’s own Ubuntu radio station, all with a firm agenda to do their part for nation building and reconciliation by driving patriotism and promoting the country’s best side. How it must irk them, try as hard as they like, that these days the country’s best side cannot be drawn out of the ever-lengthening shadow that covers it.

Part of that shadow is Nkandla, possibly a fourth instalment in Zuma’s every growing personal war with the media at large. Unlike his rape trial, however, the mountain of evidence suggesting guilt on his part is fairly overwhelming. Nevertheless, as ever, the president seems convinced the media has other agendas. Here is another of his imaginings:

"If I was a reporter, I would have said: ‘This allegation that President Zuma is corrupt, he embezzled R250m building his house, is not correct’, and made the headlines as you are making the headlines about the allegation. You have not done so and I don’t think it is a fair treatment to a citizen because you want that impression to remain."

It cuts a stark contrast with the pleadings of his advocate before the Constitutional Court, as he effectively begged for it not to find the president in breach of his constitutional duties — a judgment that could necessitate a call for impeachment

Of course, one solution to all this acrimony would be for the ANC to own its own newspaper. It’s an idea the party has flirted with for decades. At one stage it has even bought printing presses (The ANC's own newspaper)  but the whole project fell apart.

Zuma, however, was fully on board.

He told the ANC’s 2008 Bloemfontein conference: "Newspapers have by now had almost 15 years to inform the public. Their actions do not reflect their words. Our observation is that they do not inform on progress in the country. If you look at the columns and pages, it is sensational and it is not balanced. When you read what the clever media people write, you wonder whether they are describing the organisation you belong to. Newspapers twist the truth in their headlines. It causes damage. It is unfair reporting."

And that’s the thing for Jacob Zuma — the media is unfair. The word litters his many and various indictments of the media. "We are so unfair on ourselves, especially black people," he says. "There is no media that attacks white people."

Unfair and without a mandate like the ANC’s. "I’ve argued with them (the media) that they were never elected," he bemoans. "We (the ANC) were elected and we can claim that we represent the people. They do say they represent the people. Does the population or public determine what is reported? They don’t."

The truth is, Jacob Zuma could never be a journalist. At least not a very good one. He has his fair share of legitimate gripes but he cannot, for the life of him, distinguish journalism from politics. He sees the media as a political machine. Its job is to promote goodwill and good news in equal measure. It is an extension of the governing party, not a check on it. Its purpose is not the pursuit of the whole truth, just a convenient one.

It would seem, ultimately, to be an irresolvable problem. He has a different paradigm, does the president. No amount of explanation or justification will breach it. You get the sense it causes him no end of frustration and irritation. "Why," he seems to routinely ask, "does the media not just get on board the ANC’s national project?"

Zuma often says he is writing a book. "Maybe I’ll finally get to write a book about my experiences," he would tell the Independent on Saturday in 1994. "I always say I will write a book and tell the story," he told the Sunday Times in 1999. "I’m also looking forward to sitting down and recording my experiences," he told Enterprise in 2004. "Wait for the book," he told The Sowetan in 2006, "It will all be in there."

Just this month, Zuma said, "When I’m a free man (from the Presidency) in a few years’ time, I will start telling my story. You will read it in a book. Because I will explain what happened."

It will be an interesting test for the president, to turn journalist of a sort. Certainly the media will feature prominently. Will it be patriotic? Or will the truth demand a different attitude? Time will tell.