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Review: Slaying holy cows – the bleak and mediocre world according to Gareth van Onselen

Review: Slaying holy cows – the bleak and mediocre world according to Gareth van Onselen

Former DA-staffer-turned-journalist/columnist Gareth van Onselen has just published his second collection of polemical essays and “critical interrogations” on a variety of topical South African issues, from ritual initiation to the notion of respect, bad service and the apparent triumph of mediocrity in South African life. But the chapters that are bound to attract the most attention are those in which the author provides a ruthless and scathing “analysis” of the mind and character of former DA leader Helen Zille, based entirely on her twitter time line. Some shit is going to fly. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Let’s cut to the chase.

It takes an extraordinary type of dogged determination to single-mindedly trawl through around 40,000 tweets – essentially 140-character public mental burps – dashed off and posted over a period of four years, capturing and examining each statement as if it were a code or roadmap into the deepest nature and mind of the individual who has been doing the tweeting.

It is a little creepy and obsessive, n’est-ce pas? Or is it just me?

This is in fact an exercise Gareth Van Onselen undertook, clearly with the stamina of a long distance runner on steroids. In his recently-published collection of writings “Holy Cows. The Ambiguities of Being South African”, Van Onselen has milked former DA leader Helen Zille’s timeline and fashioned this into two separate chapters (all of 8000 words) titled “Helen Zille’s Living Biography” and “Zille vs. Twitter” and which stand as the centrepieces of the collection.

Van Onselen is no “outsider” when it comes to the Democratic Alliance. He spent twelve years working for the party in various positions – as a researcher, writer, analyst and also as former leader Tony Leon’s Chief of Staff. Politics, of course, attracts individuals who possess the prerequisite qualities to survive in this cut-throat, power-hungry environment. They are generally, clever, hugely ambitious, messianic and ruthless. And that’s when they’re being nice to each other. They do, no doubt, also possess nobler human instincts but these they save for election campaigns.

Those inside the DA who were pleased to see Van Onselen exit – and shift shape as a columnist and journalist for Business Day – have labelled him “bitter”, “divisive” and “a party hack”. Van Onselen doesn’t care. He is a man seized by an irrepressible drive to impress his thoughts and ideas of the world and the country we live in through his writings. The lens through which Van Onselen wants to make sense of the world is “evidence driven”, based on irrefutable facts, data and above all, reason. All else is sloppy thinking. He also finds himself a proud liberal in a world where he has come to believe that the marrow, life and meaning is being sucked out of the political philosophy.

All of these qualities render Van Onselen a controversial, sharp and ruthless writer and commentator, although he does explain that he has attempted to author some chapters with humour and a dollop of melancholy. There is an exhaustive and tightly written chapter “Quiz shows in the age of transition” about an obscure 1995 television game show, “Pyramid” which ran for two short seasons. That Van Onselen has fixated on this show in such detail in order to come to the conclusion that “Pyramid put on display for all to see – couched in the pseudo gloss of a modern sophisticated quiz, conducted in a strange language and held together by a rules system so complex it befuddles even today – the general ignorance of the wretched, the vulnerable and the weak” – is a testament to the quirky and unusual routes he undertakes to reach his various conclusions.

Van Onselen is a melancholy, idealistic misanthrope. A sort of white High Priest of despair. A man who feels he is in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of mediocrity that surrounds him. He has dedicated an entire chapter to mediocrity “a disease coursing through our veins…Fuelled by apathy, legitimised by nationalism and fostered by indifference”. But he does remind us early on in the book that his is a pessimism not born of “disdain but of idealism”.

“Here, disappointment is the consequence of a failure to achieve the highest possible standard. One’s frustration is not the result of an inherent belief that anything praiseworthy is impossible. Quite the opposite. It is the result of the conviction that amazing things are indeed possible – only the general standard is so low, so mediocre, that even when the acceptable is accomplished, it falls significantly short of higher aspirations and ideals. Hence the disappointment.”

Van Onselen doesn’t get asked out much, he says.

When it comes to Zille, Van Onselen cuts this holy cow uncomfortably close to the bone. But before we begin, it is evident, after reading Van Onselen’s book in its entirety, that he might very well have been attracted to psychoanalysing Helen Zille because he shares so much of what he claims she is. He will vehemently disagree, but there we have it. She is the shadow to his gloomy light.

In the first chapter on Zille, Van Onselen writes that Twitter has altered completely the manner in which political figures come to be known and understood in public. In the past, those who reached the end of their political careers would retire to write their autobiographies or memoirs, endeavours that require reflection, hindsight, introspection and contemplation.

Twitter, however, has altered this.

Helen Zille is perhaps the first contemporary politician to understand the power of Twitter in South Africa. She is a prolific, uncompromising, maddening and controversial Tweeter who, according to Van Onselen “dwarfs other politicians in terms of her social-media reach”. He suggests that Helen Zille is “single-handedly able to reach more people than the overwhelming number of daily newspapers in South Africa”.

She is, in other words, a sitting duck.

And so it is, writes Van Onselen, that “[i]f fully embraced, the archival record of a person’s Twitter account becomes a real-time, public diary of their convictions today. Such personal convictions are traditionally hidden from view, or at least usually better stage-managed through more considered forms of communication, like speeches and interviews. Those more traditional formats allow for more time and space, and more control over presentation and perception.”

On the surface this would and should provide reason enough for closer examination. A Twitter feed is a fascinating contemporary source of information on an individual – but it is only one source, albeit hugely public. The very nature of Twitter is its immediacy, its speed, its lack of nuance (how deep can you go in 140 characters?), its convenience (or inconvenience, it turns out) of communication. T-wars are so common on the platform precisely because it is so one-dimensional and immediate.

In his second chapter “Zille vs. Twitter”, Van Onselen says that Zille has always had a choice over which audience she chooses to engage with; the one half which “thinks she is one of the great Shakespearean actors” and the other, which “believes she should be put in stocks and pelted with rotten tomatoes”.

Van Onselen argues that Zille’s Twitter feed provides a space where “the truth resides. Without the safety net of time, reflection, complexity and space, obfuscation is largely eradicated”. He suggests that “once an individual’s personal view is on offer for anyone and everyone with cellphone access, you can be fairly sure they will relentlessly seek you out. And Zille often obliges.”

Van Onselen has grouped together Zille’s tweets under set headings such as “Who is Helen Zille?”, “Attitudes, values and principles”, “In God I trust”, “Three social evils” (being alcohol, drugs and sex), “Family”, “All work and no play”, “Twitter, t-wars and trolls” among others. Of course grouping together a series of statements – no matter how controversial or embarrassing – made over a period of time into one chunk of text will make anyone look like a complete tosser. And while Van Onselen might say that the tweets stand as “evidence” of the interior of Zille’s mind at the time, it is evidence corralled for a specific purpose – to specifically ridicule and vilify the subject. Van Onselen, of course, argues that this was not the intention.

Van Onselen sketches an unflattering portrait of Zille as a combative, moral absolutist, a paranoid victim who suffers from repressed anger and who is incapable of self-reflection.

“This urge to fight seems to be something of an internal conflict and one Zille struggles to control. And given how much emphasis she places upon control, you get the sense she is fighting hard. Likewise, you wonder, what would it be like to experience the full, unrestrained compulsion were it to be set free? Those who have seen it say it is furious indeed.”

(Expect a call soon, Gareth.)

Zille is, suggests Van Onselen, addicted to Twitter.

“The perfect metaphor for Zille’s relationship with Twitter is ironically that of a drug user with their substance of choice. They crave the high, they regret the low and as a result they self-harm. It is a relationship born out of low self-esteem”.


At the launch of his book in Cape Town on Wednesday night, I asked Van Onselen whether Zille’s life on Twitter might be explored or viewed from another perspective; whether the evidence he had so carefully collected might, for her countless supporters, provide a different view, a view of a public figure with a rare sense of honesty (no matter how controversial or blunt), authenticity and human fragility – qualities many politicians rarely dare to display in public?

Could Helen Zille’s lack of apparent “filter” on the platform perhaps not be perfectly suited to the medium in this technological age where what is private and what is public – particularly for politicians – no longer exists in carefully managed silos? After all, over four million people voted for her and the party she grew and led until this year.

It was not a perspective Van Onselen had considered.

While Helen Zille’s Twitter feed no doubt offers “truths” and insights into who she is or may be, these provide – like the medium – a portrait with little nuance, depth or complexity. No one is that one-dimensional, which is why Van Onselen’s chapters – while they might be entertaining to those who enjoy watching Helen Zille “implode” in public – cannot be said to be “true” or entirely “evidence-based”.

Van Onselen’s collection is a provocative series of philosophical and political musings. Some chapters, particularly the one on mediocrity, sometimes read like a relentless, preachy harangue. What the book will do is make you want to argue with Van Onselen, sit opposite him somewhere and unpack where possible fault lines in his thinking may exist. From this perspective the collection offers a conversation piece, an opportunity to reflect and debate several hugely important issues that do need to be part of the national conversation. DM


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