Number One meets the Fourth Estate

President Jacob Zuma, his ministers and deputy ministers had a networking session with editors, journalists and analysts on Tuesday morning. Interactions between the president and the media are few and far between but almost always a good thing.

The cocktail party-type format, however, made it difficult to get the most out of the occasion. It is quite a feat trying to mingle with the Cabinet, balance a plate of scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee, type notes on the iPad, tweet breaking news and titbits, and jostle in the media scrum to be able to ask the president a question. The finger buffet included Syria, the NDP, Zimbabwe, Nelson Mandela, the mining strike, Riah Phiyega and the spy tapes - all for the taking if you were by any chance an Olympic juggler, a rugby prop or a goddess with many hands.

The invitation billed the event as "the President's breakfast meeting with editors". This could have meant anything from a high-level briefing on the state of the nation to a run-of-the-mill press conference. Other than the logistics of the event, the only guideline the invitation offered was that dress was formal, but it might as well have said bring a fishing rod and a saddle as journalists hardly pay attention to dress code.

It was quite a surprise to find the room teeming with ministers and deputies, all unusually cheery and chatty, like divorcees in a singles bar. The idea was for the journalists and opinion-makers to be able to interact informally with the executive, presumably to improve relations and project government more favourably. However, without the rules of engagement being spelt out, it is difficult to know how much is on or off the record, and whether the horseplay is reportable and/or tweetable.

Schmoozing can be quite daunting though if you generally think journalists are cretins ready to chew up your Christian Louboutin shoes or invade your national key point. But for those members of Cabinet who still associate with the hoi polloi, it is less forced and conversations are able to proceed past "It's really good to see you". But the members of Cabinet were just the support cast for the day as obviously, the president was the main act.

President Jacob Zuma brought his game face, which hitherto had been locked up in a vault in an undisclosed military facility. The BBC's Andrew Harding noted in a tweet: "Zuma has been looking tired and old recently. But not today. Seems feisty and rested."

However, the fastest way to make Zuma disconnect with his audience is to give him a speech to read. What was meant to be "a few remarks" before questions and informal interaction turned out to be a 1,340-word address. It included the responsibility of the media in a developing country like ours, commending the nation-building initiatives run by some media houses (the subtext being we wish the rest of you could play nicely too) and listing all the anti-corruption institutions and teams in government, which might not be getting as much credit for exposing corruption as the media does.

At the end of the generally un-newsworthy written speech read in monotone, Zuma mentioned former President Nelson Mandela's discharge from hospital, saying this was an indication of the recovery progress he had made and but that he remained "critical but stable". With a large contingent of local and foreign journalists in the room, the news about Mandela immediately went out to the world.

The question session, though restricted to a few journalists held in good favour by the presidency's media unit, allowed Zuma to shed the straitjacket and speak animatedly on issues such as the United State's intended military action in Syria, South Africa's approach to the outcome of the elections in Zimbabwe and the future of the National Development Plan.

With foreign correspondents dominating the question session, international issues took precedence over domestic ones, which, on the eve of the G20 summit which Zuma is attending in Russia, is understandable. And with Syria at the top of the international news agenda, Zuma's comments that individual countries should not take unilateral action against others and that only the United Nations could decide on measures against the Syrian government for the use of chemical weapons, fit neatly into the running storyline.

On Zimbabwe, Zuma gave insight into why the South African government reacted to the election outcome in the manner it did and recognised Zanu-PF's win. He also shared information of reports that had been presented to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on the Zimbabwean election and the road South Africa had walked to assist its northern neighbour to transition from the crisis it was in after the previous election. "Zimbabweans are not easy customers to deal with," Zuma said in rare unscripted commentary on South Africa's headache in working through the negotiated settlement between the ruling party and opposition.

On the NDP, Zuma said that now that certain parts of the plan had been agreed to by the ANC and its alliance partners at the past weekend's summit, government could go ahead and implement it. He also talked about plans to institutionalise the NDP in government for more effective implementation.

On the strike in the gold mining sector, Zuma appealed to unions and mining companies to find a solution that could avoid costly industrial action. "A strike hurts both sides. They must find a solution," Zuma said

After the formal programme, it was anticipated that the president would move around the room interacting informally with journalists. However it became more like a UN food drop in a refugee camp, with journalists thronging around Zuma to ask questions on their issues of interest. Because of the big scrum with cameras and microphones held up as Zuma moved and turned in the crowd, it was like listening to a radio station in an underground tunnel where you only catch some bits and a complete sound bite is potluck.

Asked about the bungle by National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega in announcing and then reversing the appointment of the new Gauteng police commissioner, Zuma said he remained confident in her ability to perform her job. "She's competent. I think she's able to do her job. So far, I think she's absolutely wonderful," Zuma said, remarking that she was doing South African women proud by serving in the position.

He commended Phiyega on acting swiftly to undo the appointment as soon as she discovered that her nominee was facing charges of drunk driving. Zuma said he would be receiving a report on the incident from the police, which would give him an explanation of how the bungle happened.

Zuma was quizzed intermittently on foreign issues while local journalists chipped in to ask about domestic issues. On the spy tapes, which the Democratic Alliance won the right to access but is being blocked from doing so by Zuma's legal team, Zuma said he had never listened to the recordings. "It is a matter that is being dealt with by my lawyers. I don't deal with any material related to court. And I don't usually want to comment about matters that are before courts. My lawyers are dealing with that."

While Zuma was being followed around by the media throng and pelted with questions, most of the ministers stood around idly or helping themselves to the buffet. In any other circumstance, it would be a journalist's dream to have ministers stand around waiting to be asked questions. However, with Zuma as the star attraction and no guarantee that such an opportunity would present itself again, there was no question where the focus would be.

So here is some unsolicited advice for the presidency for future interactions (we hope). While the session was a lot more useful than the R700-a-plate business breakfasts hosted by The New Age, where members of Cabinet are trotted out to perform like circus monkeys, the free-for-all format was still not ideal. Either have a social event for the media to network with the executive, or a question and answer session where journalists can sit down, hear and write or type properly and accurately.

In a situation like the presidency finds itself in now, with multiple crises colliding, you need a trouble-shooting session, not a cocktail party minus the cocktails. There also needs to be briefing sessions with the president's advisors and senior officials, those who are trusted and understand the actions and decisions of their principal. It happens all around the world and with previous administrations here. This is not North Korea. Seriously.

There needs to be some balance with foreign and local media, otherwise it becomes a spectator sport for some. And if interactions are held more often, journalists will not feel like Israelites wandering in the desert trying to figure out what is going on in the administration.

Instead of wheeling out the whole Cabinet to stand around or overindulging in the buffet, deploy them in small groups or clusters to interact with the media in such sessions. Get GCIS to earn some of its R429-million-a-year budget by arranging these. It will promote better understanding of the work of the departments and clusters and stop ministers thinking that journalists emerge from the nine circles of Dante's Hell to torture them.

Appoint a task team to think about it, if you must. The media is a powerful weapon if you learn how to stop shooting yourself in the foot. Dodging it and demonising it is a wrong turn to take.

It's our little bit for nation building, our way to make a difference. Use it, don't use it. You know, when we see something, we say something. And no need to send us a thank you card, the Post Office is on strike anyway.

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.