Eight times Helen Zille made journalists’ lives hell

Helen Zille may be a former journalist as she loves to point out, but she is the ultimate media bully.

Many journalists have had the unpleasant experience of Zille calling them up and screaming at them. Editors have had to endure her attempts to control editorial decisions with shrill, high-volume phone calls.

And then there is the personal humiliation she likes to mete out. Perhaps Zille wishes she was still in the newsroom and able to issue instructions. Instead of recognising the independence of the media, she often engages in aggressive bullying tactics to get her way, freezing out those who won’t comply.

Here are a few of the most famous examples from a shoddy track record, but most South African political journalists will have a story to tell about this consummate bully. 

1. The Cape Times debacle
At Zille’s behest, all Western Cape government departments have recently ended their subscription to the Cape Times, largely it appeared because of one article that Zille found disagreeable and the claim that the quality of journalism had fallen. 

As political commentator Eusebius McKaiser pointed out in a column, the issue was neither the quality of journalism of the paper, given that no proper analysis of that seems to have been done, or the government’s personal taste in newspapers. “She plays with the money of the provincial government to express disgust with this one piece of reporting, instead of going through the very channels that, as a former journalist, she ought to know all politicians should use in the first instance,” wrote McKaiser on IOL News.

“If I don’t want to buy the Cape Times, for whatever reason, I do not need to explain that to anyone. But if a government uses my taxpayer money to buy, or no longer buy, a product or a service from a particular supplier, they have to explain to me as the taxpayer why they took that decision. They are accountable to me because they have been granted that lawful discretionary power at my behest as a resident, voter and taxpayer of the Western Cape.”

To make matters worse, Zille embarked on a series of patronising and aggressive radio interviews on Talk Radio 702 with first John Robbie and then Redi Tlhabi to defend her decision. 

2. Twitter wars 
Over a single day in February 2013, Zille went on a long and bitter tirade against two journalists. One was Sunday Independent journalist Shanti Aboobaker, the Cape Times reported at the time. Gavin Davis, DA communications director, tweeted: “So, apparently gratuitous reliance on ‘anonymous sources’ is now considered ‘journalism’. Some reporters allow themselves to be abused.” Zille modifed Davis’s tweet, saying: “This one’s for you @Shantiaboobaker RT @gavdavis: ‘anonymous sources’ now pass for ‘journalism’ 4 reporters who let themselves be used.” She then retweeted another user, Funzi Ngobeni, who said: “Shem, we must give credit to Cde @ShantiAboobaker for relentlessly writing hogwash about @DA_News. Your efforts won’t go unnoticed Cadre!”

3.  White journalist “damned by her own complexion”
But it was political journalist Carien Du Plessis who bore the brunt of Zille’s sustained rage, over a City Press article on the party’s manifesto, which Zille alleged was factually incorrect and evidence of bias on Du Plessis’s part.

Zille also took issue with Du Plessis commenting on the hashtag “DA is a joke” on Twitter. Zille’s critics and those in her own party said the leader went too far when she made reference to Du Plessis’s race and background. “She is so terrified that she will be damned by her own complexion that she has to bend over to prove her political correctness,” ran one of a string of attacks by Zille over two days, and: “Carien is trying so desperately to hide the Missus class from which she comes.” 

An irate Zille told the Mail & Guardian shortly afterwards she would not withdraw the comments about Du Plessis. “I am tired of ‘manufactured outrage’ and double standards. But here’s a deal: If no journalist ever refers to the race of anyone in the DA again, I will withdraw my use of the word ‘complexion’ in relation to Carien,” she said. 

Once again, Zille missed the point that her party claimed to uphold a better standard and resorted to a petty “if they do it so can I” justification. And as Sisonke Msimang wrote on the Daily Maverick afterwards: “Du Plessis represents the kind of white young person that Zille can’t fully wrap her head around … Zille’s insistence that Du Plessis’s political and personal choices are the result of her feeling guilty about being white seem oddly old-school, the product of a time when there were only a set number of ways one could feel about being white and privileged in a racist South Africa. In the end then, it is clear to anyone watching Zille’s spiral that her fight is not with Du Plessis, but with herself.” 

4. Screaming fits of rage 
I’ve long had a cordial relationship with Zille, who has quoted one of my columns previously in her newsletter. I even defended her when some on Twitter accused her of often losing her cool with journalists, maintaining she was always polite with me. I was soon to be proved wrong.

I was asked to write an article about the incident with Du Plessis. I called Zille’s spokesperson for comment and told him to tell Zille she could call me if she wanted to chat about it further. Zille proceeded to call me shortly after, clearly sleep-deprived and under enormous stress. Despite my cordial greeting she launched into a 10-minute screaming tirade about the reaction to her tweets about Du Plessis, which she labelled hypocritical. I was shaken but tried to keep my cool until she started insisting that she was being accused of racially-loaded insults for no reason. I politely disagreed and read her the offending tweets she had sent out about Du Plessis’s racial background. “So what?” was her response, before another screaming tirade until I ended the call. 

Since then Zille has avoided me and refused to talk to me directly, besides one occasion when she told me I was a useless journalist and I did not know what I was doing. After I subsequently sent questions to her party pointing out that she has repeatedly flouted the party’s social media policy and yet faced no action, she blocked me on Twitter.  

5. Intimidation tactics
After Zille had officially blacklisted me, I had to enlist the help of another journalist in the newsroom to ask her questions for another story as she refused to speak to me. When the journalist arrived at Zille’s office for the interview, she found a stack of papers on Zille’s desk, which turned out to be a print-out of the reporter’s tweets. “You scrutinise me, I’ll scrutinise you right back!” was her retort, while she went on to pick apart the tweets she didn’t like before deigning to begin the interview. Needless to say, the reporter was shaken and struggled to put the difficult questions she had prepared to the belligerent premier. 

6. School marmish dressing-downs
Zille attacked Daily Voice reporter Nathan Adams after an article using figures from the premier’s own officer showing that 66% of the 75 most senior posts in the Western Cape government were held by whites, according to a report about the incident in the tabloid in April 2013. Adams wrote about how he was summoned to the premier’s office after a press conference, his photographer barred from entering. “In the manner of a school principal giving a dressing down to a naughty pupil, the Premier accused the Daily Voice of ‘manipulating’ figures to serve our ‘racial agenda’,” wrote Adams. “When I tried to leave the room the Premier snapped: ‘Sit back down – you will leave when I am done!'”

7. Playing fast and loose with race issues
Taking aim at everyone’s favourite puppet reporter for no apparent reason, Zille made a startling accusation against Chester Missing and by extension the man behind him, Conrad Koch, implying that his campaign against racists like Steve Hofmeyr was opportunistic and financially driven. “Chester knows there is nothing like a running battle with racists to send your career into orbit. Maybe he did a deal with Steve [Hofmeyr] and Dan [Roodt] to share the royalties in perpetuity. Steve and Dan would know that’s what you do when your career needs a booster rocket,” Zille said in a newsletter. Missing questioned why Zille did not condemn Hofmeyr when called to do so. 

8. Blacklisting journalists
In 2010, the DA made no bones about going all out and blacklisting a Sowetan journalist they accused of having a political agenda because of her previous work. Cape Town-based Ann Majavu, who is a former spokesperson for the SA Municipal Workers Union, was blacklisted in August last year, the Sowetan reported at the time. 

Executive director of communications and research Ross van der Linde confirmed that the party had cut communication with Majavu. “Majavu is not a journalist. Some journalists and editors disagree with our policies and views, and they are entitled to do so. But Anna Majavu is a former South African Municipal Workers Union spin doctor, who has a particular political agenda,” Van der Linde said. Rhodes University’s Jane Duncan told the Sowetan the DA’s refusal to send her information was childish. “Majavu’s previous work is irrelevant. Many journalists have been involved in other professions in their working lives. This does not make them lesser journalists, otherwise one would need to be a journalist from the cradle to the grave to qualify in the DA’s eyes, which is unrealistic.”

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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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