R Munusamy: Flashes of Zuma, Man of the People

President Jacob Zuma did three things this week that showed he could go back to being the leader he had wanted to be. He went to the Khayelitsha taxi rank on Monday morning to interact with commuters and listen to their grievances. On Tuesday morning he held a live radio interview in which more than 60 community radio stations participated and listeners were able to call in and tell him their problems. On Thursday, he reached out to a terminally ill man in the opposition benches in Parliament and gave him hope that his plea for alternate treatment for cancer would receive attention from government. Where has this president been and why doesn't he show himself more often?

South African politics can be a bizarre business. A political party announces the leader of another political party as its presidential candidate and then the whole deal crashes and burns within a few days. A firebrand leader of the ruling party's youth league, who had vowed to take up arms and kill for the president, gets expelled and makes it his life's work to unseat that president. A section of the ruling party serves 'divorce papers' on it and forms a breakaway party, only to spend the next five years divorcing themselves.

Then something happens to show that amid the rhetoric, political wheeling and dealing and politicking, there is a possibility for politicians to recognise the pain of others and take action to show they care.

Mario Oriani-Ambrosini has stage-four lung cancer. The Inkatha Freedom Party MP has been largely absent from Parliament from the middle of last year after being diagnosed. He has shrunk to a third of his size and struggles to draw breath when he speaks. But he participated this week in the debate on the State of the Nation Address (SONA) and used the platform to appeal to President Jacob Zuma to decriminalise medicinal marijuana so that it can be used as an alternative treatment for cancer patients.

Oriani-Ambrosini said he was supposed to have died already but believes that his illegal use of marijuana and other alternate treatments extended his life and helped with the pain. After his speech to Parliament, Oriani-Ambrosini handed over a set of documents on his research to Zuma. On Thursday he tabled a private member's Medical Innovation Bill, which provides for the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes.

On Thursday afternoon, Zuma was replying to the debate on SONA after being bombarded with criticism from the opposition benches for two days. It must have been quite an agonising exercise for Zuma to sit passively and listen to a parade of political opponents tear apart his presidency and shred everything he has done over the past five years. Zuma is particularly sensitive about his home at Nkandla and must have been furious at the continued mention and condemnation of the high cost of the state's security upgrades at the residence.

In his reply, Zuma responded to some of the criticisms from opposition MPs but did not mention the Nkandla upgrades. He also highlighted some of glowing reports from ANC MPs to illustrate the 'good story' they say they have to tell about the government's achievements.

Towards the end of his long reply to the debate, Zuma said the following: "We have noted the appeal of Honourable Ambrosini about the decriminalisation of marijuana for medical uses. I was touched to see the man I have known and worked with for more than 20 years in this condition."

Pausing and looking across at Oriani-Ambrosini in the opposition benches, Zuma said: "I have asked the Minister of Health to look into this matter." Oriani-Ambrosini smiled back at him. The look on his face showed he was deeply moved. He had taken a chance on a controversial issue that is a matter of life-and-death for him. It must have been emotional for him to hear the president say he had assigned the person in charge of the government health system, the diligent Aaron Motsoaledi, to investigate the use of medical marijuana.

Motsoaledi is a medical doctor and was apparently also moved when he heard Oriani-Ambrosini speak. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that the matter will be considered seriously.

One needs to know who Oriani-Ambrosini is and his role in the IFP to understand why this gesture by Zuma is significant. He has been at IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi's side since 1991, when the ANC and IFP were ostensibly at war. Oriani-Ambrosini is a constitutional lawyer and advised Buthelezi through the testing Codesa negotiations and the process of drafting the Constitution. He was also Buthelezi's advisor when the IFP leader served in the national Cabinet. Many ANC people secretly detested Oriani-Ambrosini and blamed him for many of the difficulties and run-ins they had with Buthelezi. The IFP leader clearly has had an inordinate amount of trust in the legal brain behind him.

So when Zuma says he has "known and worked with" Oriani-Ambrosini for more than 20 years, this is not as wholesome as it sounds. Zuma was leader of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal during the first term of democracy when violence still raged between the two parties and relations were strained.

Therefore, after two days of pelting criticism from the opposition, including the IFP, it was a gesture of goodwill and compassion for Zuma to acknowledge Oriani-Ambrosini's suffering and appeal for help.

That is what is expected of a president whose country is in a state of turmoil and people across the nation are screaming for his attention and help. In telling his 'good story' to the nation last week, Zuma did not give the impression that he could hear these cries and wanted to reach out and use his powers to help them. In fact, the good story narrative was used to mask many of the bad stories that had marred his presidency.

In previous years, Zuma has been somewhat dismissive of points raised in the State of the Nation debate by the Democratic Alliance (DA). On Thursday he responded to criticism from the DA's Tim Harris of the Expanded Public Works Programme and acknowledged the input of Sej Motau on youth who are frustrated and desperate with no jobs.

In our coverage of SONA, Daily Maverick conveyed to the president that he should "Step out of the bubble and meet the real world" in order to tap into the sentiment on the ground. This week, Zuma seemed to be doing that. He arrived at the Khayelitsha taxi rank on Monday morning, interacting with commuters and listened to the grievances.

"People here are saying their situation is bad. The Western Cape is two worlds in one and people are saying the ANC must take over to liberate them and that's what they have been telling me here," the SABC quoted Zuma saying. Of course, he is on the election trail so the objective is not altogether altruistic. Nonetheless, at whatever time, the president should be listening to what the people have to say.

On Tuesday morning, Zuma was interviewed on an hour-long radio programme broadcast simultaneously to over 60 community radio stations around the country. Listeners could call in and ask the president questions or express their grievances. According to presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj, Zuma took about 10 calls in the hour. He said some of the questions were about service delivery protests and corruption.

One man called in and said that his father's killer had confessed to the murder, yet he was walking the streets. Maharaj said Zuma and his staff took down the information and the man's contact details and would get the Minister of Police to look into the matter. Another caller congratulated the president on the new hospitals built but said there should be more. The caller also spoke of the state of the Addington Hospital in Durban and Zuma undertook to meet the person once refurbishments at the hospital were complete.

All these are personal complaints, which would otherwise never get the attention of the president. The more he listens, the more he will feel the pulse of the nation.

Zuma has all the facilities at his disposal to interact with ordinary people and deal directly with the problems. It was his initiative to set up a presidential hotline, and the presidency has various social media accounts, which allows people to communicate with the highest office. These tools are not always used effectively, which has resulted in a growing disconnect between Zuma and the people who carried him to the gates of the Union Buildings.

When Zuma breaks through the constraints of his office, he comes alive and is able to give meaning to his words and actions. On Thursday, he veered off script like he did during SONA and again, he made his best points off-the-cuff.

Responding to Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder's criticism of the affirmative action policy, Zuma said the damage of apartheid could not be ignored and government needed to pursue policies that redressed the deliberate exclusion of black people in the economy.

"Now to believe that this can correct itself, I think it is the biggest mistake. It can't. It is very important that we ensure those that were left outside are brought in and included.

"I don't know what informs this cry about affirmative action. I really don't know," Zuma said.

He promised that after the elections, the country will enter "a new radical phase in which we shall implement socioeconomic transformation policies and programmes that will meaningfully address poverty, unemployment and inequality".

Zuma is clearly in election mode so the next few months until the 7 May elections might introduce a new and improved, responsive president. Or he could slip back into his old ways of concealing himself from the people who elected him and defer his problems to other people.

As Zuma heads to his second term as president, which will define his legacy, he needs to consider carefully the kind of leader he wants to be. It's never too late to be a good leader.

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.