Helen Zille tweets almost daily to 84,967 followers – and rising. To put things in perspective, that’s almost 15,000 more people than the number who follow the account of the presidency (@SAPresident), but around 500 less than the fans of Johannesburg traffic cop-and-speed-trap-detector @pigspotter. Even the most fervent DA opponent must acknowledge that Zille is indefatigable on the social media site: fending off insults, referring people to DA councillors for assistance, and often just swopping bantering.
It’s clear Zille derives some enjoyment from Twitter: on more than a few occasions she has referred to it as her form of recreation. That’s not to say she hasn’t been burnt by it, however. Probably her most high-profile spat on the social networking site has been with singer/actress Simphiwe Dana in August, when the two went keyboard-to-keyboard on issues relating to Cape Town’s perceived inequality. Writing a Facebook note about the spat (or “twar” – Twitter war, as users call it) a week later, Zille noted some of her reservations about the medium as a forum for political discussion. She said a colleague had warned her when she activated her Twitter account, she should not be tempted to answer questions on the medium because “if you do, you will be on a treadmill from which you cannot alight”.
Zille is now very much on that treadmill. She has produced 4,608 tweets, with the vast majority constituting responses to questions or complaints. Over the course of the year her Twitter demeanour has loosened up somewhat: while she once largely restrained her tweets to dealing with people who brought municipal issues to her attention, in recent months the opposition leader has visibly relaxed her approach. The events of 24 October – when the hashtag #AskHelenZille trended worldwide, as South Africans bombarded Zille with tongue-in-cheek questions – possibly contributed to this. Zille handled the deluge of facetious questions with humour and good grace, and clearly got a kick out of the whole thing: she invited the comedian who started the trend, @DeepFriedMan, to lunch, after calling him a “legend” (on Twitter, of course).
The questions while #AskHelenZille was trending were funny for their absurdity – queries like “Can fat people skinny-dip?” and “What are you doing about the hipster problem in Cape Town?” – but in reality, many of the ostensibly serious tweets Zille receives every day are on a par with the satirical ones. Many South African Twitter users appear to see Zille as a kind of latter-day omniscient Oracle of Delphi; or, to use a more modern analogy, a walking search-engine. Zille has on a number of occasions lost patience with people tweeting her perfectly searchable questions, snapping at them: “Use Google”.
Past tweets directed at Zille have included (again, apparently seriously): “How do you know when you have worms and they want to pop? What are the signs?” (19 November) Zille replied: “I am not a doctor and I certainly cannot advise via Twitter. Please go and see a doctor if you are feeling strange.” “You haven’t gotten back to confirm if @MogoengMogoeng is the chief justice’s Twitter acct,” someone tweeted imperiously at her on 8 November. “How and why should I?” Zille replied.
Zille estimates she answers roughly one in 50 tweets. Her language is often surprisingly slangy: “Big up”, “Right on”, “No sweat” and even “Fo sho” have featured in her tweets, and she has been known more than once to tell someone to “Chill, bru”. She takes followers to task for racism or notably illiberal statements, and sometimes apologises for misunderstandings.
Twitter users seem to be particularly intrigued by the nature of her relationship with Jacob Zuma. On more than one occasion she has been at pains to stress in response to queries that she experiences Zuma as warm and charming in person. She has also previously informed the Twitterverse that the president is “punctual”. That’s where her ANC-related charity ends though. A running theme throughout her tweets has been that of informing Gauteng tweeters they “have the government they deserve” if they voted ANC. In her tweets (no doubt a simplification of her actual stance due to the 140-character limit) she appears very big on the twin ideas that (a) if you voted for the ANC, you can’t complain about its subsequent governance; and (b) that if you didn’t vote at all, you can’t complain at all. Both these notions are, to say the least, open to debate.
Where Twitter has worked best for Zille is in revealing the warmer side of a politician often perceived as cold and not empathic. She tweets often with pride and affection about her husband – who appears to do a lot of cooking for her – and her sons. (Once asked on Twitter what her favourite kind of music was, she replied “Anything played by my son Tom”, and followed it up with details of his next gig). She is also surprisingly self-deprecating: repeatedly admitting that she can’t cook, has little interest in clothes or hair, and discussing her Botox use without squirming: when asked “did u actually do this botox thing?” in November, she replied “Yes. It takes away my frown lines”.
Where Twitter has worked less well for Zille is in her fire-from-the-hip responses to discussions such as her belief that the knowing transmission of HIV should be criminalised. What might start off as a reasonable position rapidly begins to look less so as Zille engages with Twitter users in a progressively more irritable and less rational way. Zille probably lost the sympathy of some people who agreed with her in principle about the criminalisation issue, for instance, by replying to a number of tweeters who disagreed with her with an admonition that they should pay for their own ARVs. In the midst of a debate like that, perhaps Zille’s BlackBerry needs to be wrestled from her grip.
The fact remains, however, that Helen Zille joins only a handful of South African political figures on Twitter (Lindiwe Mazibuko, Malusi Gigaba and Zizi Kodwa are there too). Her accessibility in a political landscape which is often criticised for its gatekeeping and lack of transparency can only be applauded. We’ve compiled a list of some of our favourite recent @helenzille tweets. Madam Premier, please keep tweeting.
[We have omitted the Twitter handles of the questioners to protect their identities.]
Ask a stupid question, get a snide answer:
Q: Can you help me find an old border buddy from 1984-5 in the Caprivi, Simau, a San hunter?
@helenzille: Is he on Twitter?
Q: What is the DA doing abt the #POIB?”
@helenzille: Have you been hibernating?
Sarcasm, an opposition politician’s best friend:
Q: From my observations, u’re always on twitter.
@helenzille: Amazingly, I have a few other things to do.
@helenzille: You are right. It has been obvious for a lo-o-o-ng time.
Q: Helen is a racist/communist hiding behind so called liberal doctrine and english IMPERIALISM.
@helenzille: Wow! You got it!
Q: ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC ANC
@helenzille: You ANC nothing yet, mate! (25 Nov.)
Q: Even coconuts barely survive the racist capital of SA [Cape Town].
@helenzille: Where did you acquire your outsize shoulder chips?
Q: Give me a reason not to emmigrate to austrailia?
@helenzille: Your spelling.
[In the context of the HIV-criminalisation debate]
Q: kids born from cons. sex – will state refuse vaccines, check-ups, meds??
@helenzille: I will personally pay for your mental evalution.
Q: And Helen can’t dance like the Prez! “hehehe”
@helenzille: WRONG! I tied with the Prez in an official dance contest last year!
Q: Yoyoyoyoy Ma Helen. About to MC the Big Walk in Gugs and it’s raining hard…Can you please deliver better weather?
@helenzille: doing my best. So sorry. But remember every drop of rain is a heavenly blessing, except to the poor ppl living in shacks. God bless
Q: What will happen at mangaauang 2012?
@helenzille: Zuma will be elected for 2nd term.
Q: How do u know?
[In the context of a discussion about Zille’s dogs’ names]
Q: called my Rottweiler Tessie. But she still killed the next door Chihuahua
@helenzille: No wonder if you gave a Rotti a name like that.
[In the context of discussion about condoms]
Q: Molo Ma, uhm what if you’re allergic to latex?
@helenzille: Then abstain or be faithful 4 life. [Fact: there are non-latex condoms available]
Q: how much does the prez earn if his wives cars cost R700k a year?
@helenzille: He doesn’t pay for the cars. You do.
[In response to two separate tweets, one asking what to do about a boyfriend problem and the other inquiring how to get red wine stains out of fabric:
@helenzille: Try white wine for both problems. DM
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