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Politicians: The good, the bad and the pretty

Although our leaders strive to show voters their good side, journalists get to see their claws more often. Reporters wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t ask difficult questions, but how is a politician supposed to react? Sulk? Give the silent treatment? 

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille has been on a roll lately, accusing journalists of factional agendas and demanding meetings with editors. But it is not just the aggressive politicians who get our attention. There are also the professionals and those who are more likely to lecture you than answer a question. Which category each politician falls into is often entirely subjective – one journalist’s BFF politician is another’s personal nightmare.

We asked around the newsroom and drew up a list of the best and worst politicians – for now, that is.

Gwede Mantashe
Jessie Duarte
Helen Zille

The ANC’s formidable secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, can be terrifying. Ask him how he is and he’s likely to retort: “You’re not a doctor.” He makes short work of journalists asking questions he doesn’t like.

His deputy, Jessie Duarte, is even scarier and is known for her short temper and sharp tongue. In a recording of an interview about the ANC’s social media strategy in 2009, she famously blew her top at Times journalist Philani Nombembe, despite his innocuous questions. She accused him of being a member of the “third force” and implied that he was racist. In the same year, she told BBC presenter John Humphrys he had “a colonial mind” during a debate about elections on the channel.

Zille isn’t much better. Many journalists have had the unpleasant experience of her calling them up and screaming at them. And then there is the personal humiliation she likes to mete out. This week, she refused to speak to one journalist from the Mail & Guardian. And when a second journalist arrived at her office for the interview, she found a stack of papers on Zille’s desk – a printout of all the reporter’s tweets.

“You scrutinise me, I’ll scrutinise you right back!” was her retort, and then went on to pick apart the tweets she didn’t like.

In a phone interview last week, she responded to questions from an M&G journalist about divisions in the party by referring to an unclear statement had made and later clarified on Twitter during vote-counting a week earlier. “You can’t be a political journalist; you clearly know nothing” was her response.

With these sorts of tactics, it is little wonder so many in her party and the media are wary of her. 

Lindiwe Zulu
Aaron Motsoaledi
Collins Chabane
James Selfe
Mario Oriani-Ambrosini

There are also the politicians who don’t try to humiliate or shame journalists.

Whatever the political climate or tensions may be between the media and the ruling party, Lindiwe Zulu, the international relations adviser to the president and head of the communications subcommittee of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), is the ultimate professional. She answers questions directly and as openly as possible, doesn’t get personal and always tries to return messages.

James Selfe is charm personified. (David Harrison, M&G)

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has a reputation for building good relationships with reporters too, and tries to find answers when questions are asked, in a similar vein to Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane.

DA federal chairperson James Selfe and Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini are both consummate gentle­men. If only the bullies could learn from this lot.

Tito Mboweni
Mac Maharaj
Mangosuthu Buthelezi
Zweli Mkhize
Patricia de Lille

There are politicians who would sooner lecture you than give you a straightforward answer. Their intentions are good and, if nothing else, you get a long chat in while trying to interview them.

Ask former Reserve Bank governor and ANC NEC member Tito Mboweni what any number of his cryptic tweets may mean and you’ll get a history in Greek history. Presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj can also keep you busy with long phone calls while cunningly revealing very little.

Tito Mboweni is endowed with the gift of the gab. (David Harrison, M&G)

And the prince himself, Mango­suthu Buthelezi, has lost little of the loquacity that made him a Guinness World Records title holder for the longest legislative speech – an address to the provincial legislative assembly between March 12 and 29 1993 during which he spoke on 11 of the 18 days, averaging nearly two and a half hours each day. Ask him a question and be prepared to listen. And then some.

The ANC’s Zweli Mkhize and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille are also particularly well meaning in the lengths they will go to answer a question.

Tim Harris
Mbuyiseni Ndlozi

What would politics be without eye candy? But that’s not the only reason outgoing DA MP Tim Harris in particular has ended up in the news so often. He is quick to answer questions, vigilant about returning calls and good at holding his temper. He also knows his subject of economic policy backwards, which has landed him a new job heading up investment for the City of Cape Town.

Thanks to his looks, he gets a fair amount of airplay.

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi is one of the nice guys. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Meanwhile, Economic Freedom Fighters spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi belies the aggressive tone of his party’s politics with his dapper appearance, ready smile and easy charm.

Hearing that Harris would be leaving Parliament and Ndlozi would be joining it, one Twitter user put it: “The Lord taketh eye candy and He giveth it back.”

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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