ANALYSIS: Why Zuma's land tweets should worry us
The former president's comeback strategy is becoming increasingly clear
Former president Jacob Zuma’s last full media briefing was May 5 2014.
It was an ANC media breakfast prior to the last national elections and, because it was at the height of campaigning, Zuma was quite generous with his time.
The briefing was a few weeks after the public protector’s report on Nkandla was released, so it was necessary for the ANC to do damage control.
The question and answer session was so intense that the then president inadvertently disclosed that his wife had been raped at the homestead. It happened while Zuma was an MEC in KwaZulu-Natal. He said the incident necessitated the first round of security upgrades at his home.
Because rape victims may not be identified, the information was not contained in Thuli Madonsela’s Secure in Comfort report. But facing a volley of questions from journalists, Zuma revealed that the incident, as well as his home being burnt twice during the political violence in KZN, was why the security level had to be raised after he became president.
Zuma did occasional one-on-one television interviews and doorstop interviews, but from then until he left office, he avoided the media phalanx. He made announcements but did not feel the need to explain his many controversial decisions. It is interesting, therefore, that in his political afterlife, Zuma has decided to engage with South Africans on social media and is now giving the impression that he wants to be part of the national conversation.
It is also curious that Zuma has decided to make his views known on the land issue now when he never engaged on it during his 10 years as ANC leader or did anything to speed up the pace of land redistribution during his nine years as president.
In a two-part video message on Twitter, Zuma said solving the land problem would “solve the poverty in this country, inequalities and the economic issues”.
“If you keep the land as it is now and sell it to people who do not have money, you are prolonging the problem.”
Zuma said there was too much unnecessary debate on the land issue.
“Having also experienced that what was an arrangement before of the state buying the land [based] on market prices under the principle of willing buyer [willing seller], we have agreed now, that has not solved the problem.
“And that is why the ANC debated the matter and took a very clear resolution that we must have expropriation without compensation. I do not know why there is a long debate on this matter because it is simple,” Zuma said.
“I have become more convinced that the drafters of the Freedom Charter were more advanced than us because they talked about the nationalisation of the land, and that is what developed countries do,” he added.
It is not incidental that Zuma is raising the stakes on the issue as the desperate need for land is a populist trigger and is likely to be a major talking point during the election campaign. The fact that he announced his views, which align with the EFF’s position on nationalisation, before the ANC’s anniversary celebrations ratchets up the pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC.
The ANC was wholly unprepared for how the land issue evolved last year, but is now trying to take the lead role to amend the Constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation. The ANC has not discussed nationalisation; neither was it in serious contention during the parliamentary process on land. For Zuma to take a critical stance now about the pace of land redistribution is not only hypocritical considering the failure of his government to deal with the issue with any level of urgency, but also politically mischievous.
He knows quite well that introducing nationalisation into the discourse feeds into the radical economic transformation rhetoric, which serves parties such as the BLF and the new African Transformation Movement.
Zuma is, therefore, trying to yank his constituency in the ANC further to the radical left, possibly with a view to a facilitating a post-election coalition with such parties.
Ironically, Zuma has never been strong on ideological policy positions. It has always been his mantra that “the ANC decides” and it is up to people like him to implement policies of the party.
But this is not simply Zuma seeking relevance in his retirement. Part of the reason for his social media campaign is obviously to get under Ramaphosa’s skin.
The other is to show that he should have been left to serve out his term as he would have been willing to implement such radical policies. This is laughable, as Zuma never attempted to do so during his two terms in office – apart from his free education announcement as his term as ANC leader ended in December 2017.
But the real cause for concern is the fuelling of populist rhetoric ahead of the elections. The land issue is an easy way to manipulate people who are frustrated with worsening social and economic conditions.
It is also disingenuous for Zuma to say poverty and inequality will be “solved” by the land issue. SA’s problems are systemic and endemic, and there is not a single fix to the colonial and apartheid legacy, as well as failures during the democratic era.
Zuma’s new hobby might be entertaining to his followers, but it is by no means harmless.
For someone who never took accountability seriously, whether through the media, parliamentary questions or even the public protector’s investigations, his sudden willingness to “engage” on big issues is duplicitous. Zuma is attempting to reinvent himself and wag the dog at the same time.
With the fickleness of social media and in the era of populism, he might actually succeed.