'We want to hear one voice'

hose close enough to President Jacob Zuma know him well enough to use the word "humble" to describe him.

There's no doubt that the man of the people from rural Nkandla is a sharp departure from the aloof nature of his predecessor; Thabo Mbeki, whom he unseated as party president at the watershed Polokwane conference.

When the vengeful asked for Mbeki's head after the national prosecuting authority abandoned their eight-year investigation against him (persecution, in the eyes of many), the self-effacing Zuma said no dice, it was not his style - Mbeki should be forgiven.

This surely stands out as the highlight - not giving an audience the sound bytes it expected.

He's too nice to say no.

But this very humility is proving to be his Achilles heel. He never seems to want to offend his audience, whatever the subject.

In the words of political analyst Mohau Pheko: "Zuma is a man that wants to create a sense that everybody has a voice. He wants to say he listens."

The present Bus Rapid Transit system is a case in point. Just before the fourth democratic elections that would return him as president, the affable Zuma walked in to face an initially hostile group of taxi operators. No one could have told the belligerent crowd to "hold your horses" and get away with it. No one but Zuma, that is.

The elections have come and gone and the taxi bodies are waiting to hear from Zuma. No two ways about it! New Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele finds himself in the invidious position that he's expected to hit the ground running.

Thanks to Zuma's niceties, stakeholders such as Philip Taaibosch in Santaco, the national taxi council who called the pre-elections summit, and Ralph Jones of the United Taxi Association Forum understand Zuma's promise to listen differently from the city fathers in Johannesburg, who were working on the BRT even as the ANC president was on the charm offensive on the podium to the charged-up operators.

Pheko says as he speaks to people and makes promises, Zuma might be aware that there's not much he can do about their problems "because in the final analysis, the ANC remains the final arbiter".

Taxi operators do not know this. All they know is Msholozi gave his word. But the danger with raising expectations, says Pheko, is that people may lose trust once the honeymoon is over.

A few days apart, Zuma would cosy up to the Afrikaner community when he told them "of all the white groups in South Africa, it is only Afrikaners who are true Africans in the real sense of the word".

The appointment of Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder to second-in-command at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry is seen in this Zuma-esque context of being nice to all and sundry.

Addressing a congress of the white trade union Solidarity earlier this year in Muldersdrift on the West Rand, Zuma was quoted as saying the government's "affirmative action policy is not meant to harm any particular group".

Its main objective, he reportedly said at the time, was to address past imbalances and "heal the wounds of the past".

hile everyone else in the ruling ANC knows the party to be committed to broad-based black economic empowerment, could it be Zuma's pliability that has led others to think, as carried in one Johannesburg daily, that he "has promised to rethink affirmative action so that it no longer discriminates against white South Africans"?

Speaking at an anti-crime rally in Mitchells Plain two years ago, Msholozi raised eyebrows when he told the sparse crowd that "South Africans must speak up if they want the death penalty back".

This from the man who heads a party - and as of April 22, a government totally opposed to capital punishment!

At the time Luthuli House moved in swiftly to do damage control, falling over themselves to fend off allegations that they were gagging the man at the helm.

Recently Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana said his party would ban labour brokers - the suppliers of temporary employment - outright. The minister described labour brokers as no better than human traffickers.

Alliance partner Cosatu shares the minister's view.

But what does the president do? He speaks at cross-purposes with labour and its political head.

Cold comfort, at least, is that this time round he's not alone in his thinking - party general secretary Gwede Mantashe reads from the same hymn book.

Listening, Pheko repeats, is a good brand.

"There's nothing wrong with it. What can go wrong is when it starts to create tension between what ANC policy is and what he says."

Professor Susan Booysen of Wits says Zuma has, since taking office, steered clear of contentious policy issues, opting to rather look at matters related to new government administration.

Booysen says the coming Cabinet lekgotla will help the government speak with one voice.

One voice, Mr President.