I first interviewed Helen Zille for an online video three years ago, just before the 2009 national elections. It was one of my first big interviews as a young journalist and it was fantastic.
It was one of those sticky, hot Cape Town days. Zille rushed into her office, coughing. She had been cheering on the fire fighters who were attempting to bring under control one of those horrible seasonal wildfires that plague Cape Town in summer and the smoke had choked her up.
She was everything I had heard about and more. She gave us a dressing-down for getting the video camera angle wrong and showing her “bad side”. Then she lost her cool with me when I kept questioning her about the perception that her party was white. We argued, she calmed down, apologised and we went on to have a meaty and wonderful discussion about the issues of the day. In the end, she flung her arm around me for a photograph and told me I had earned her respect. She was stubborn, she was argumentative and impassioned, but mostly she was human. Looking back, it is still one of my favourite interviews.
I looked forward to more of the same at our second interview, which took place last weekend. But as far as sequels go, in terms of living up to the original, this one made Speed 2: Cruise Control look good.
We had set up the meeting in Johannesburg after she had taken exception to a series of tweets and a column in which I had criticised her infamous “black professional” tweet. To her credit, she offered to meet me to discuss the issues and I took the opportunity to pin her down for an online video.
Too late to stop
She walked in holding a bag in either hand: “Hello Verashni.” Unsure of what to do in terms of greeting her with both her hands occupied, I – bizarrely, in retrospect – went in for a hug, saying as I did: “Shall I hug you?”
“If you must,” she responded.
It was too late to stop. She stood there woodenly as I engaged in the most awkward hug of my life. The funniest part was that a large part of the interview was to be informed by recent analysis by political analyst Eusebius McKaiser that had summed up my problems with Zille’s Democratic Alliance. It was titled: “More hugs, less Zille will help the DA to grow“.
The rest of the interview was as wooden. Zille has honed a certain “TV” voice and face. She widens her eyes, glues a smile on to her face and intones, rather than answers, the questions. The problem is, it is over-controlled, rigid and does not communicate emotion well – much like the party.
McKaiser noted in his analysis: “The trick is to move voters and explain to them what skills you have that your political opponents do not have.
“The DA obsesses about one part of that strategy – skills, facts, data – and totally neglects the other part of the political game – speaking from the heart, empathising with the disenfranchised and giving a disillusioned voter not just the promise of running water and sanitation, but also that most human of responses: a hug. Both are crucial aspects of effective political communication.”
Questions that were designed to make Zille laugh elicited an overly rational and dull response. “So when are you going to let Lindiwe take over the party?” I asked, tongue in cheek. To which I received a lecture on the nomination processes of the DA. I missed the Zille I encountered several years before. She could be abrasive, but she won you over with the sheer intensity of her commitment and passion.
Perhaps her foray on to Twitter and its negative consequences has forced her into this rehearsed role. Her cutting humour can often be refreshing in person, but over 140 characters on Twitter, it proved to be hurtful too often to the young and still sensitive electorate the DA is setting its sights on. Calling people “wombats” and telling them to wake up when you find their arguments lacking may have worked face to face, with a smile to match, but all humour is lost in digital translation and, on Twitter, Zille has often come across as callous and downright mean.
After the fracas caused by Zille’s “refugee” tweet, I tweeted: “Open tweet to the DA: please wake up Zille’s comms team and tell them to do their job. Twitter must be managed like any other platform.” It seemed my wish had come true, but as another user cautioned me: “No! This [is where] we get to see who she really is.”
As I sat through her press-release-like answers, it saddened me that the party’s response to the outcry about Zille’s abrasiveness was more control and even less emotion. As McKaiser has pointed out, what the DA needs is more hugs – both literally and figuratively.