THIS past weekend, I attended a function hosted by President Jacob Zuma at the State Guest House. It was a gracious affair but it made me think of the US president Richard Nixon. The function formed part of a series of presidential celebrations about 20 years of democracy and this time the topic was media freedom.

Consequently, a cocktail of television hosts, political journalists and editors assembled to hear the president speak. It had the woozy style of modern, political functions in SA, with the ever-present smell of braaied chicken in the background. The invitation said "formal", but ties were sparse and the mood was relaxed, enhanced by pleasant spring heat among the jacarandas in Pretoria.

Zuma delivered his speech in good voice and some journalists present enjoyed it. But to me it was an oddity. The speech was ostensibly about the past 20 years, but in fact it focused on the period immediately prior to the past 20 years. Zuma spoke in excruciating detail about the World Trade Centre negotiation process, on the basis that sometimes we needed to be reminded about the origins of our democracy and the press freedom stipulations in the constitution.

This struck me as dutiful but empty. Rather than focus on well-known history, why not grab the news agenda? On a slow news Sunday, any comment about any number of topics — Ebola, the EFF, the state of the economy — would have made headlines. Instead we were treated to familiar platitudes.

But then it all changed. Zuma came around from table to table and chatted freely. The atmosphere was jovial, and Zuma was animated, albeit with a slight underlying tension. At our table, one of the editors asked whether he felt fairly treated by the press, and the conversation drifted towards the elephant in the room: Nkandla.

I asked whether, even if he didn’t actually know beforehand, he shouldn’t at least acknowledge that too much money had been spent, and apologise. He demurred, saying it was necessary to respect the ongoing process. But it wasn’t about the money anyway, it was about a political stick to beat him with, he said.

And so, not minutes after celebrating media freedom, Zuma was haranguing the media about how unfairly he was being treated by the press. Nobody, he pointed out, apologised when the public protector’s Nkandla report came out. That notion caused some surprise. He argued that although the report did find he had "unduly benefited", it did not find he had personally known about the cost of the upgrades. Ergo, the press ought to have apologised.

He didn’t stop there. He launched into a whole plethora of excuses, from the fact that press photographs showed areas of the homestead that were in fact government buildings, to the fact that nobody complained about the costs of his existing two state houses. He even threw in a bizarre comparison with the lack of outrage about George airport, commissioned by PW Botha because he lived close by in the Wilderness.

It was an obvious release to finally talk about these things. But it was revealing that he didn’t appreciate how this would be seen as evasion.

The fact is nobody believes he didn’t know what was going on. Even if he didn’t, he should surely have found out. You got the impression of someone who has painted himself into a corner trying to get out by applying more paint.

I asked whether, even if he didn’t actually know beforehand, he shouldn’t at least acknowledge that too much money had been spent, and apologise. He demurred, saying it was necessary to respect the ongoing process. But it wasn’t about the money anyway, it was about a political stick to beat him with, he said.

And hence the link to Nixon. Nixon was, I imagine, a much darker and more paranoid character, but they intersect when it comes to a sense of persecution and an excessive sense of self. In fact, the public concern is not only about Zuma himself; it is about whether Nkandla is symbolic of an administration that has lost its grip on state expenditure and doesn’t respect taxpayers’ money.

For Zuma to see this as an issue about him personally is a revealing Nixonian misallocation of the problem.

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