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Truth a casualty when parties, media collide

The weekend's South African Communist Party (SACP) conference seemed to show once again how the relationship between the media and politicians can be so confusing as to make it almost impossible to know where the truth lies.

At issue are reports of an attempt to intimidate National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) general secretary Irvin Jim and the apparent confusion over why SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande did not attend a dinner for Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe .

Mr Jim told reporters he had been followed by a group of armed men in an unmarked BMW on Friday morning. He said police had told him the men's identification badges claimed they were police officers, and the vehicle's number plate s were fake. This was reported extensively on Friday.

On Saturday morning, Mr Nzimande told the conference that the media had "sensationalised" the incident, and that Mr Jim was never in any danger. He said it had been an "honest mistake" involving security guards for the mayor of eThekwini, and that the media was to blame for blowing up the issue and "distracting the conference".

However, Numsa and Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi appear to disagree.

Numsa president Cedric Gina said it was not the role of a political party to pronounce on such incidents, while Mr Vavi tweeted on Saturday evening: "Won't comment further on 'honest mistake' of police car with false registration numbers, following a mayor whose name they don't know, etc."

Mr Nzimande said yesterday that his party "was not in the business of manufacturing martyrs", a comment that could be seen as a criticism of Mr Jim's behaviour, particularly in the context of the SACP's condemnation on Friday of Numsa 's decision to make public its unhappiness with the party's decision to deploy its national leaders to government. However, he may not wish to be seen directly criticising Mr Jim - and thus it is easier to blame the media.

A similar dynamic appeared to be at play on Saturday evening. Mr Motlanthe spoke at a fund-raising dinner for the SACP in Durban. The banqueting hall was half full and the only national SACP official was new chairman Senzeni Zokwana. Despite being scheduled to give a speech in the official programme, Mr Nzimande did not arrive. Nor did either of his deputies

This immediately led to speculation that it was a direct snub, particularly following the reception given to President Jacob Zuma the day before, and as Mr Motlanthe had claimed the African National Congress's "second transition" document contained no new ideas "but smatterings of Marxist jargon".

Mr Zokwana explained that Mr Nzimande was ill, but other explanations were also offered. Mr Nzimande said yesterday he had been "exhausted and the national officials had told him to rest".

However, when asked directly if this was a snub, M r Nzimande, and several of the other national SACP leaders attacked the reporting on the issue. They accused reporters of having agendas, and of "only being able to think about Mangaung".

Sending messages within the alliance can be complicated. It is possible a confluence of events led to only Mr Zokwana being able to attend the dinner (although it could be claimed that no matter what the situation, it is rank bad manners to invite the deputy president to speak at a fund-raising dinner, then not attend yourself).

However, it is also possible that it was a snub, and also a signal to Mr Zuma. Conspiracy theorists might also believe Mr Nzimande wants to deny snubbing Mr Motlanthe, but at the same time wants people to know it was a snub.

As so much of our politics takes place within one organisation, the alliance, leaders cannot be seen to criticise each other directly. This means they have to use other methods - and it is possible the media will be stuck in the middle.

This column first appeared in The Business Day.

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