Never one to stand back from a challenge, Helen Zille applies her journalistic and political skills to smash a backhand return at an equally adept literary warrior, Stephen Grootes. Anyone who follows either protagonist will relish what promises to be an instructive rally. While journalists are expected to show no fear or favour, Zille, unlike many other politicians, plays them at their own game, serve and volley, questioning, countering and providing evidence for each of her arguments. I cannot help but admire her using her stellar former membership of the Fourth Estate to robustly ventilate issues. Readers can form their own opinions and come election day, express them at the polls. This is how you do it: not slip intelligence to selected media pawns to gain favour and win propaganda wars. If, like me, you respect both protagonists, look forward to more Wimbledon-like exchanges. Let the best contestants fight it out – without victimising individuals to appear woke. – Chris Bateman
By Helen Zille
When I look back on my 25 years in politics and recall the sustained media attacks on the DA, I struggle to identify a single issue on which the pack-hunt of commentators got it right and the DA turned out to be wrong.
Indeed, our biggest misjudgements occurred when we followed in the media slipstream – as we did in the Schweizer Reneke debacle at the start of the 2019 school year.
But in the main, history has proved our foresight correct on almost every issue I can think of, ranging from the legalised corruption of BBBEE, to state capture, the dangerous ideology of Wokeness and much more.
We pointed out all these fallacies in real time, long before they became “obvious” – and were lambasted as racists (or worse) for doing so.
But the DA’s prescience is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. When most media commentators finally get it, years later, they usually trumpet it as a new insight. But this is rear-view mirror analysis, while they continue to careen blindly into the future fog.
If they manage to spot an intersection on the road ahead, they almost inevitably take the wrong turn.
Their double standards are also legendary. The DA is judged by a totally different yardstick from any other party. For example, other parties regularly fire and replace public representatives and staff, without having to endure adverse media comment. But if anyone leaves the DA, for even the most innocuous reason, it is presented as a “purge” or an “exodus”.
Another favourite trick is “false equivalence”. Whenever the ANC is involved in a scandal, commentators will search for an issue (no matter how petty) to level equal criticism against the DA.
I see these things all the time. Mostly I just shrug. But sometimes I spot an example that is so egregious, that even I am taken aback.
Take a recent Stephen Grootes column, dated 12, June titled: The Nationwide Failure of SA Democracy.
In his column Grootes briefly touches on the revelations that Cyril Ramaphosa hid a huge dollar cash stash, (reportedly between $4m and $8m), inside furniture in his farmhouse. The money was stolen, allegedly by a gang collaborating with a domestic worker. The suspects were then tracked down, allegedly kidnapped and bribed to keep the incident under wraps.
This is the way Grootes deals with it: “While the discovery that Ramaphosa was keeping US dollars in cash at his farm, possibly illegally, is not in and of itself a massive event, it is often small incidents like this that precipitate a major political crisis.”
I did a double-take. The fact alone that the president kept a huge haul of dollars at his farm IS a massive event, even without the alleged incredible criminal sequel. As most informed people know, keeping foreign currency, above the modest legal limit, is in itself, a criminal offence.
Just ask a man called Faisal Abid, who was found in possession of over $500,000 on his way to Dubai. The whole lot was confiscated because of his contravention of Exchange Control Regulations. And his court bid to get back his money failed.
Then there is the obvious hollowness of Ramaphosa’s explanation that the money was the proceeds of selling cattle and game. This explanation falls equally flat because foreign currency is not legal tender in South Africa. And game auctions typically involve payment by Electronic Funds Transfer, not cash.
The Ramaphosa cover-up is so glaring that this whole episode from start to finish IS A MASSIVE EVENT, no matter which way you look at it.
Later in the article comes the inevitable “false equivalence” with the DA. Grootes finds it in a recent Twitter exchange between DA Mayor of Johannesburg, Mpho Phalatse and former DA leader Tony Leon. While the exchange evinced irritation on both sides, it was such a non-event that it wouldn’t have attracted any attention at all – had the DA not been involved.
But Grootes devotes more space to this non-event than he did to Cyril Ramaphosa’s alleged criminalty. He describes a totally innocuous Tweet about a DA caucus workshop as “relatively” innocent, before detailing the exchange between the mayor and Leon, and concluding that this “small incident” is another sign of the divisions within the DA with significant consequences for democracy.
It is no such thing.
The exchange between Tony and Mpho is a minor contretemps between two individuals. It tells you absolutely nothing about the current resilient and robust state of the DA. But Grootes needed the false equivalence between the “relatively innocent” Tweet to offset his reference to the “not in and of itself a massive event” involving the President.
Why does Grootes do this? He does so to prove his point that there is a “nationwide failure of democracy” in South Africa. Indeed, that very phrase is the headline of his article. That means that he has to paint the ANC and the DA as equivalent failures.
The truth, of course, is quite different. Where the DA governs with an outright majority in 15 municipalities across four provinces, and in the Western Cape, life is incrementally improving for all residents. Where the DA governs, there is no “failure of democracy”. In fact, we underscore that the success of our democratic project depends on voter choice.
We are also part of 11 majority coalitions and 12 minority coalitions, which are much more difficult to govern, but where (in some cases) we are beginning to see green shoots. The multiplicity of “pop-up” parties that emerge before every election results in complex and unstable coalitions, which multiply the risk of governance failures.
This will become all too apparent in the years ahead, something that Grootes too will be forced to recognise through the rear-view mirror. For now, though, he does the fashionable thing of punting these parties in subtle, but obvious ways.
I have just one question, Stephen: why is it so terribly hard to acknowledge that, where the DA governs, there is no failure of democracy? And why is it so impossible to see that the more we win, the better the prospects for South Africa’s democracy? And the better the prospects are of securing sustained economic growth and reducing poverty, which is our over-riding goal.
The DA attracts criticism, partly because we seek out the truth and speak it, no matter how unpalatable. We believe this is essential for South Africa’s future.
Isn’t it time for media commentators to try to do the same?
- This article was published on Helen Zille’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HelenZille/