Advice to ‘New Age’ journos – come well-armed to tea with ‘Madam’ Zille

Helen Zille

Whatever flaws Helen Zille might have – and there’s a small army of critics out there, most of them ANC-supporters – her earlier career as a fiercely independent and courageous journalist is universally acknowledged as stellar by her professional peers. Those of us whose careers ran parallel or close to the peak of her prowess and achievements in the Fourth Estate were hardly surprised when she entered politics and immediately made a mark with her unerring ability to get the nub of things. It was a nod to the best tenets of her former profession that she was bestowed the honour of Best Mayor in the World, having cleaned up the Cape Metropole mess left by the bumbling and corrupt previous ANC incumbents. But here, a media colleague of hers who observed her work at close hand, Ed Herbst, takes a different slant; the inadvertent trailblazer she was for women, whom in those years played second fiddle to men. What he doesn’t say is that she not only set an example to talented and ambitious women journalists – she also waded into the townships where squatter camp women bore the brunt of Group Areas Act removals. Crossroads in Cape Town would today not be the global icon of resistance and heroism, were it not for her leading the way in covering the cruel daily shack destruction and trucking back to the Transkei of (mostly) women and children. I know this because when I covered the Cape townships in the violent 80’s, much of my research inevitably led to Zille-bylined stories. Many of us today watch with amusement as ideologically fresh-eyed journos, most with no idea of her background and many of them with overt ANC agendas – try to take her on publicly. She’s been there and done that. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

‘As a journalist I learned to shy away from making excuses for the failings of government. I am determined to expose torture, state violence, corruption, and repression wherever I see them. That is not an onerous burden; it is a privilege. In this modern world, where so many question the meaning of life, I am honoured to stand up for human rights, press freedom and democracy. I know they will win in the end.’ – Where we have hope – a memoir of Zimbabwe – Andrew Meldrum (John Murray, 2004)

Ed Herbst

Looking back over a reporting career which spans almost half a century, my sense is that a new era of courageous journalism by women started when Helen Zille joined the Rand Daily Mail in 1974.

I am not saying that she was necessarily the inspiration of those that followed her – such as those who testified recently in the parliamentary inquiry into endemic SABC corruption – but I do believe that her example was an encouragement to the women who subsequently entered the profession

In 1977 when, in Pretoria, I started my 28-year stint at the SABC as a television news camera operator and reporter, I held her in high professional regard.

I had spent the previous decade working for the Natal Witness and the Natal Mercury as a photographer and reporter and I immediately appreciated her  reporting talent at the Rand Daily Mail. She is best remembered, of course, for breaking the story about the last hours of Steve Biko, but I also admired her for another story.

At the time the Pretoria Opera House was still being built and the then Premier of the Transvaal, Sybrand van Niekerk, was unequivocal in his stated belief that blacks would not be allowed to attend even though the Nico Malan theatre in Cape Town was multi-racial. Zille interviewed him and, filled with the insouciant and patriarchal machismo of the era, he justified his racist stance by saying that blacks did not like opera they liked “war dances”. Astonished, she asked if she could quote him and he nonchalantly agreed.

Shortly afterwards I was sent to the Waterkloof airbase to film the departure to Cape Town for the opening of parliament by the then State President and former Minister of Finance, Nico Diederichs.

Angelic little girl

I was standing at the edge of the red carpet leading to the plane and filming Diederichs as he walked towards it. Van Niekerk was on my immediate right and Helen Zille was to my left. I was panning with Diederichs when I suddenly heard a cry of “Oupa!” Removing my eye fractionally from the eyepiece I caught, in my peripheral vision, the sight of an angelic little girl running down the red carpet, her arms outstretched and I sensed that Diederichs had turned towards her. It was a sequence that would imbue a dry formality with touching humanity.

I swung the CP 16 film camera to the right to pick up the running child and was jarred as it hit something. I concentrated on the shot as Diederichs swept his granddaughter up into his arms.

When he was safely aboard and as the engines revved up, I realised that my fist and the camera pistol grip had struck Van Niekerk full in the face as I suddenly turned.

He was not well pleased.

I stammered a brief apology before turning away to film the plane taking off.

Zille struggled to keep a straight face.

But it was her revelations of how Biko died that were to earn her justified and enduring fame.

Shortly after Biko’s death was announced by NP Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger with the now notorious phrase – “It leaves me cold” – I was told to get to the Union Buildings as quickly as possible. Kruger wanted to make a further  announcement. The SABC’s senior TV news reporter in Pretoria, the late Christo Kritzinger, was away so they had, somewhat reluctantly I imagine, to make do with me. The camera operator and I arrived to find Fleur de Villiers of the Sunday Times waiting outside Kruger’s office. Waiting with her was Kruger’s PA who anxiously gestured the two of into the office, leaving de Villiers outside.  She had obviously been told that the SABC, with its audience of millions, was more important to Kruger than the Sunday Times and was justifiably angry.

Kruger made a brief statement to the effect that due process would be followed and an inquest held. I immediately referred him to the news in that morning’s papers – that Donald Woods, editor of the Daily Dispatch and a friend of Biko, had said that it was extremely unlikely that Biko had died after a hunger strike as the National Party then averred.

Cold, enigmatic smile

He smiled a cold, enigmatic smile – knowing that Woods would soon be banned – and, without answering, glanced towards his PA who stepped forward and ushered us out of the office. I avoided looking at de Villiers as I left.

I was later, from 2007 – 2009, to report to Helen Zille when I worked as a consultant to the media department of the Cape Town municipality and she was mayor. This was an organisation that had, during the ANC interregnum from 2001 – 2006, been looted of more than a billion rand through tender scams and had lost some of its finest talents and centuries of institutional knowledge through deployed cadres replacing professionally qualified people who were not wanted by the new ANC administration. R80 million was spent on severance packages for them – your money and mine – because they were white and thus perceived to be DA supporters and, more importantly, gatekeepers who would compromise the rapacious corruption which has become synonymous with the words African National Congress  and which subsequently and inevitably ensued. Zille reversed the ANC rot and turned the Cape Town municipality into a significant municipal and service delivery success story. She was also voted best mayor in the world.

This resonated strongly with me because during the period when this municipality was being brought it knees by the ANC, the Cape Town news office of the SABC, effectively under ANC control, was not allowed to cover any of these scandals, something that, among other reasons, led to me asking for early retirement  in 2005 with no other employment in prospect.

Women’s rights

Zille was also a champion of women’s rights and that, too, resonated strongly with me because I helped to compile two reports about staff abuse, particularly of women, in the Sea Point office of the SABC after the ANC effectively took control of it in 1998.  Both reports were submitted to the SABC by the Broadcasting and Allied Media Workers Union (BEMAWU) in 2001 and 2006. The first was to CEO Peter Matlare (who did nothing of consequence about it) and the second to the Sisulu/Marcus Commission of Inquiry.  Both reports included reference to abusive behaviour towards female newsroom personnel in Cape Town. The latter, second report was given by the Commission to Dali Mpofu who effectively ignored the Commission’s findings and attempted to suppress its report.

Writing in the Daily Maverick on 19 February 2013, the new owner of Independent Media (Pty) Ltd, Dr Iqbal Survé, who had bought the company with a R1.2 billion loan from the PIC and then called for ‘fair and balanced reporting’ said:

‘The media can play a very important role in nation building – I want to live on this continent. I think you do, and I think that our children do, and I think we must create that environment. You know I was very close to Madiba, and we were gifted in having someone like that in our midst. I think it would be a travesty of justice if we didn’t take that goodness and do something with it.’

What Helen Zille has experienced, however, particularly from one of Survé’s supposedly flagship newspapers, the Cape Times, is the crudest of ethnic slurs.  Such slurs are the antithesis of the Nelson Mandela dream of nation building through racial reconciliation. They are the sort of slurs which are now routine as the African National Congress relentlessly plays the race card to distract attention from its corruption and governance failures.

Arrogant white madam

On 19 May 2014, Eusebius McKaiser attacked Zille in a Cape Times column headlined ‘Why the DA needs to rein in the ‘arrogant white madam’ at its helm.

And, in support of Mckaiser, Karima Brown wrote:

Helen Zille is a bully who has an overdeveloped Madam complex. Whiteness and its hegemony stops right here and right now. We ain’t taking this shit no more!!”

Strange to say when the African National Congress, in all its bestial depravity, set alight the home of Nomboniso Thiywe, a former ANC member because she had started canvassing for the DA, burning to death three of her children, it was to the ‘White Madam’ and not to McKaiser and Brown that this devastated community turned. They asked Zille to deliver the funeral oration in Xhosa – which she taught herself so as to better serve the needs of black people in the province:

‘I often try to think back on the funeral scene, but my mind draws a blank. I know we pitched a marquee on the flattened plot where the tragedy had occurred and that a large choir sang soaring hymns in magnificent harmonies. I can’t even recall the children’s coffins, perhaps because the sight of a tiny coffin is such an assault on the natural order of things. The only thing I recall was Nomboniso, draped in her black blanket of grief, swaying backwards and forwards with a vacant expression in her eyes, while her mother, her burn wounds bandaged, wept beside her.

‘Nomboniso withdrew from political involvement. She was never the same again.’  (P213 – 216)

Iqbal Surve, head of Independent media group.

Among the women journalists and columnists who have chosen to leave Independent Newspapers or have been driven out since Iqbal Survé took control of the company only three years ago are: Fatima Schreuder, Di Caelers, Warda Meyer, Carryn Dolley, Chelsea Geach, Jayne Mayne, Lindsay Dentlinger, Marianne Merten, Karima Brown, Janet Heard, Ann Crotty, Wendy Knowler, Alide Dasnois, Judith February, A’eysha Kassiem, Ethne Zinn, Jillian Green, Martine Barker, Melanie Gosling; Michelle Jones, Tanya Farber, Zara Nicholson and Renee Moodie. Most had contributed decades of loyal service to the company and all had much still to offer. So much for job creation by Dr Daniel Matjila of the PIC  who made this all possible with a financially questionable  and politically dubious  investment of more than a billion rand which belongs  to civil servants.

At the time of the latest Independent Media Group (IMG) retrenchments, the company has effectively abandoned ethical reporting – so much so that, in the past year alone, 77 complaints had been laid against it with the SA Press Council.  In withdrawing from the Press Council rather than apologise to a defamed woman journalist, Gill Moodie, the Independent Media Group has followed the example of the New Age  owned by the Guptas – with whom Dr Iqbal Survé hoped to enter a partnership.  The Guptas withdrew rather than apologise to DA MP Gavin Davis. Both effectively operate with the help of public money, the New Age with huge amounts of government advertising and dodgy contributions from Eskom and Hlaudi Motsoeneng and IMG with more than a billion rand derived from the monthly contributions  made by civil servants to their pension fund which is controlled by the PIC headed by Dr Dan Matjila.

These factors will undoubtedly have played a role in some of the above-mentioned women deciding to accept the miserly retrenchment package offered rather than continue to work for the Independent Media Group.

In setting a very different standard as a reporter, Helen Zille empowered a subsequent generation of courageous women journalists. Some, like Carmel Rickard, Mandy Wiener, Fiona Forde and Jessica Pitchford have added significantly to our corpus of political journalism as authors.  Others such as Ferial Haffajee and Alide Dasnois have shown courage as editors and, when Helen Zille started reporting in the mid-1970s, not a single newspaper in South Africa was edited by a woman. Now there are several.

Former SABC TV news reporter Paula Slier distinguishes herself as Middle East bureau chief for the television station Russia Today. Because she is a white Jewish woman she was  denigrated and banned from SABC news channels by Snuki Zikalala – who was cited before the TRC for human rights abuses – and let it not be forgotten that Zikalala always had the full support of Thabo Mbeki-appointed, SABC board members like Christine Qunta and Thami Mazwai.

And, on our local television news channels, how bereft we would be without the courageous contributions of Devi Sankaree Govender of Carte Blanche.

Constant threats

The courage of the women of the Fourth Estate was re-emphasised recently when Thandeka Gqubule and Krivani Pillay testified before the parliamentary ad hoc committee investigating the pervasive ANC-driven and sustained  corruption at the SABC. They did so despite constant threats, their houses being broken into, damage to their property and attempts on their lives. They did so despite being spied on by the ANC in collaboration with the State Security Agency. Nothing like this happened to SABC news personnel during the apartheid era – I know, I worked there from 1977 to 2005 as a television news cameraman and reporter.

As we laud the role of Gqubule and Pillay and other brave women journalists, we can but hope that the view expressed by journalist Andrew Meldrum – who was deported from Zimbabwe by another despotic ANC hero and role model, Robert Mugabe – in the quote that anchors this article, will prove prescient. We can but hope that human rights, press freedom and democracy will, despite the ANC but with the help of a vigilant Fourth Estate ‘win in the end’.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.