South Africa

HANNIBAL ELECTOR: What the Zille Twit-Pocalypse says about us and 2014 election

By Richard Poplak 4 March 2014

In this, the first properly “viral” South African election, the way that politicians, citizens and journalists are now battling it out online has made old-school, paper ‘n ink headlines more than once. What does the latest flap over opposition leader and Democratic Alliance president, Helen Zille, say about new realms of civic engagement in South Africa 3.0? RICHARD POPLAK goes online to find out.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who can watch the watchmen?

—Juvenal, Satires

Jesus, Twitter, what have you done?

Given that this is ostensibly an essay about Helen Zille and her recent viral dung-flinging at veteran journalist Carien du Plessis, I should mention that I, too, have been subject to the DA leader’s Twitter wrath. (That sentence, by the way, would enrage Zille, who loathes postmodern journalism: the need for every hack to insert himself into the story; the subordination of hard facts for personal perspectives; the disappearance of Truth in the face of Me). Having a Twitter scrap with Helen Zille doesn’t make one a remarkable or even effective journalist—in fact, it’s sort of a vocational rite of passage. In lieu of diplomas, I hear that Rhodes’ University’s J-school programme will now be bestowing Zille’s crap-talk mini-missives on successful graduates.

That said, the invective hurled at du Plessis was notable not only for its vileness—“Carien is trying so desperately to hide the Missus class from which she comes. Shame”—but for how accurately it sums up the state of the country’s discourse in this, our fifth national election campaign. In a gentle tweaking of Godwin’s law, it takes roughly three steps before an online argument devolves into a race war. Zille, because she is a bare-knuckle brawler who prefers haymakers to a contemplative cup of tea, has refused to apologise. “I will defend journalists’ RIGHT to write rubbish,” tweeted Zille, who was once a journalist. “But I will not remain silent about the rubbish they write. Others also have rights.”

Ah, democracy: in a perfect circle of entitlement, the watchmen are now being watched by those they are watching. When the notion of quis custodiet ipsos custodes? was first posed in Plato’s Republic, wise Socrates insisted that society’s guards would never need guarding, because their souls would be appropriately trained. Five centuries later, during a more cynical epoch, the satirist Juvenal put the question in more ribald terms:

I know

the plan that my friends always advise me to adopt:

Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who can watch

the watchmen? They keep quiet about the girl’s

secrets and get her as their payment; everyone hushes it up.

The way Juvenal (perfect Roman rapper name, I’ve always thought) sees it, guards would need to be guarded until everyone was watched in a Stasi-like feedback loop that, were such an arrangement is to reach its logical apex, would result in the collective insanity that social media presages. Similarly, Zille claims that she has taken to Twitter to guard her person and her party from bad journalism, and there is certainly much bad journalism to be guarded from. In a column published in Daily Maverick, entitled “If you can’t take the heat…”, Zille describes her outlook thusly:

[Because of social media] we can raise the cost of dishonest, prejudiced, and tendentious journalism. We can expose double standards and hypocrisy. And of course some journalists squeal, just like the schoolyard bully when, at last, someone turns around and hits him back.

Let’s pause this heavyweight bout for just a moment. Zille took du Plessis to task over a City Press article in which the journalist covered the DA’s recently released election manifesto and its stance over land claims restitution—a highly inflammatory issue within party circles. Indeed, it’s one of a number of Important Issues that any journalist not in a coma would raise, given that land restitution is a big, big deal in Africa. It is a complex argument, one that Zille felt du Plessis glossed over. (I think. I don’t know. I’m trying to project here.) Instead of calling du Plessis out on her perceived fumbles and clearly laying out the DA’s policy initiatives, Zille chose an ad hominem attack. Why might that be?

Perhaps Helen Zille is insane. But I don’t think so. In her attack on du Plessis, she wasn’t wading into incandescent, freeform bat-shittery, but rather nudging ever closer to perfect, Platonic Zille-ness. After all, she’s a street fighter who displays an almost ecclesiastical belief in the power of social media to flatten imbalances between journalists and the politicians they harass in print and on television. “Twitter turns everyone into a reporter; the only difference is that journalists get paid,” she says.

But there’s also a strong case to be made for the fact that Twitter encourages people to behave like a bunch of thugs, and no one makes it better than Zille, both in her actions and in the construction of her argument. Halfway through her piece, the DA prez details some of the misogynist and racist attacks she’s suffered from journalists with bylines that didn’t exist, and weren’t possible, before the Information Age. (“Take @dayjoyskillz,” she writes, “whose twitter bio describes him as a journalist, or, more pretentiously, a “Creative Partner @E-touch News”). She doesn’t seem shamed by the fact that those she mentions don’t have platforms outside of social media, although she’s spent five jangled paragraphs lauding citizen journalism as the future of democracy. Zille then goes to conflate abuse from the great unwashed—threats of rape, death, etc, etc—with the criticism she receives from the press. This is a politician’s grime-smeared sophistry, the kind of stuff that would have induced Socrates to double his dose of hemlock.

When Zille had a go at me on Twitter last month, I had two simultaneous but conflicting thoughts. First: “Good, I got to her, I’m doing my job”. Second: “Lady, for Christ’s sake, put down your phone and think about what you’re writing.” Zille is not just one of the most important people in South Africa, but one of the more important people on the continent. She is leader of the official opposition in an economically and culturally vital African giant, and bears a major responsibility for shaping the futures of over 50 million people, including my own. It’s a very hard job that comes with lots of power, and in turn invites enormous scrutiny. If she doesn’t have better things to do than Tweet anything at journalists—regardless of their credentials, regardless of their sins—then she needs to find a replacement. (Oh, wait….)

What’s more, Zille seems to fundamentally misunderstand how drastically journalism has changed since she last practiced it, and how those changes could actually benefit her, were she more attuned to the zeitgeist. Outstanding foreign and local journalists who have recently broken hard news stories (that no one cares about) in Central African Republic, Kenya, South Sudan, and South Africa are now live-Tweeting minutia from the Oscar Pistorius trial. Actual journalism is now fully dependent on the insidious oil-slick creep of the celebrity tabloid—one could argue that Mandela’s slow death and Oscar Pistorius’s bathroom antics are directly responsible for anyone outside of Bangui knowing what is going on in CAR. It is painful to watch great journos spending their days Tweeting an ex-Nike shill’s facial expressions from inside a courtroom, but this is the trade-off. No Oscar, Bangui. No Oscar, no Juba.

No Oscar, no DA election coverage that doesn’t come from the party’s own Twitter feed. And good luck on selling that to the haters.

And so as journalism tries to worm its way through the mire of the interweb’s creative destruction, on the other end lurks Helen Zille, an ex-journalist who presumes to understand the current playing field in the same way her critics presume to understand the challenges of election-time politicking. It’s exactly this absence of empathy that has always characterised the relationship between journalism and politics (and has crossed over, with even less compassion, into celebrity journalism, just as politicians are increasingly treated like celebrities). The unfortunate but essential ingredient in watching the watchmen is the brutality required to stem brutality. Our souls, Socrates would be saddened to learn, remain untrained.

Professional journalism is dying, largely because of the economics of the internet and the (pretty much correct) belief from corporate honchos that unfamous people don’t care about news if it doesn’t concern famous people. If Zille happens to weather her own bouts of online excess, she will outlive as leader almost all of the publications she says have vilified her unfairly. If she’s serious about the future of freedom of speech in South Africa, she’ll be horrified to learn that at the current rate, most of our news outlets will one day be spewing endless reruns of the Pistorius trial, intercut with LOLCat videos, set to a K-pop soundtrack. Instead of contributing to the sleaze of online mudslinging, she should be doing everything in her power to raise the level of discourse and counter misinformation with the facts she insists she used so judiciously in her own practice.

Zille’s across-the-board belligerence is no doubt a strategy the DA has adopted in the face of a vicious political sphere, where the ANC has for years sent various attack dogs to maul her whiteness, her record in the Western Cape, her style of dress. During the DA march on Luthuli House, this tack came close to putting hapless DA supporters in physical danger. Online, it puts Zille on exactly the same plain as the racist trolls and misogynist hacks sending her hate Tweets.

So, who watches the Watchmen? Zille is correct in believing that social media can provide oversight against poor fact-checking and lousy perspectives. It can, and often does, make bad journalism better. But the straw man she thwacks away at is on its last legs, as evidenced by the gross obsession with South Africa’s ersatz OJ. Zille would do well to take this break in election coverage to rethink her propensity to Tweet at every slight, and develop a comprehensive media strategy that uses information as a weapon. Her words: “If you follow the hashtag, you can read whatever anyone says about the subject.” Yes, but every time the hashtag reads #CrayZille, we drift further from her objectives.

It has been, and always will be, every government’s tendency to roll back freedoms of speech and expression. It has been, and always will be, democracy’s greatest weakness and greatest strength to allow its citizens the right to speak their minds within certain bounds. Here in South Africa, where ANC privacy bills present a real threat to journalism and free speech, Zille needs to find a way to combat unfair coverage without damaging her office. Perhaps the first and best move would be for an aide to gently prize her smartphone from her hands, and then smash it into one of Cape Town’s sun-dappled sidewalks.

That way, the Twit-pocalypse will end. And Helen Zille will usher us into a bright, Spike Jonze-directed techno future, where everything is voiced by Scarlett Johannson, and we trade facts for facts, factually. DM

Photo by Sapa.

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