The Sowetan, Zuma and Zille: A critique

by The Editor

FEATURE: Shortly after her 2009 election as Western Cape Premier, the Sowetan newspaper decided to make an issue out of Helen Zille. Because it didn’t have anything suitable, it decided rather to manufacture some news. So it took a comment Zille had made about President Zuma and blew it out of all proportion, setting off a media frenzy. What follows below is a 2009 article on the incident, setting out how the Sowetan manipulated ‘the news’ in order, presumably, to do nothing more than sell newspapers.

The Sowetan, Zuma and Zille: A critique

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 September 2012


The hysteria surrounding DA Leader Helen Zille’s recent comment about Jacob Zuma appears to be dissipating. At its height, a number of the statements made crossed the line between the rational and irrational and drifted off into the distance, towards what can only be described as the idiotic, the inane and the incomprehensible.

There is a particular cliché appropriate to any attempt to understand this issue, which goes like this: ‘never argue with an idiot, they will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience’.

Quite right. So I’m not going to bother sifting through the garbage spewed out by those two leading intellectual institutions, the ANC Youth League and the MK Military Veterans’ Association. That would be like trying understand why sewer rats enjoy, well, the sewers – a very messy exercise; and, quite frankly, about as valuable as the subject matter.

Instead I would like to go back to the beginning, to the newspaper responsible for breaking ‘the story’ and the editorial it wrote subsequent to it.

That is not to suggest that the content of that editorial is qualitatively better than the ANCYL or MKMVA’s contributions, only that the language is more reasonable and so it is easier to dissect.

The purpose of the exercise is to better understand poor journalism, a task for which the particular newspaper’s approach to this matter ideally lends itself.

The initial story

The newspaper in question is the Sowetan and it ran its initial hard news story on 12 May. The paper took one quote from a statement by Helen Zille (initially a letter written to the Cape Argus) and made it the subject of a story. The quote in question was the following:

“Zuma is a self-confessed womaniser with deeply sexist views, who put all his wives at risk by having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman”.

The story was titled “Zuma an AIDS risk – Zille” but, more gratuitously, the paper ran it as a front page banner headline as well. The sub-headline read: “Zille’s amazing attack on Msholozi” and the excerpt from her statement was printed below the main headline. Those three things, as well as a picture of Zille, took up the whole first page. The first line of the story started: “DA leader Helen Zille has launched an extraordinary new attack on President Jacob Zuma…”

The use of the words ‘amazing’ and ‘extraordinary’ are the result of the Sowetan’s character – it is, for all intents and purposes, a tabloid – a more serious publication would not editorialise in this manner. Together with the description of the statement as a ‘new attack’ and the prominence given to it, they created the impression that Zille’s statement was both original and outlandish. It was, of course, neither of those things.

During his 2006 rape trial Zuma made three controversial statements:

• “And I said to myself that I know as we grew up in the Zulu culture you don’t just leave a woman in that situation, because if you do then she will… say you are a rapist”;
• “[Taking a shower]… would minimise the risk of contracting the disease [Aids]”; and
• “If a woman is dressed in a skirt, she will sit properly with her legs together. But she [his accuser] would cross her legs and wouldn’t even mind if the skirt was raised very much.”

In his judgment, Judge Willem van der Merwe stated that, “It is totally unacceptable that a man should have unprotected sex with a person other than his regular partner and definitely not with a person who, to his knowledge, is HIV-positive.”

He also pointed out that, “The accused was criticised for the fact that he, in his responsible position in government, took the chance of being infected with HIV. He was also criticised for running the risk of infecting his wives. The accused conceded all that.”

And Zuma would again concede his behaviour and statements had been deeply problematic in a public apology subsequent to the trial: “I wish to state categorically and place on record that I erred in having unprotected sex. I should have known better and I should have acted with greater caution and responsibility. For this, I unconditionally apologise to all the people of this country.”

A substantial number of newspapers responded to Zuma’s comments with moral indignation. The Sunday Times wrote in an editorial: “…as he tries to draw a false screen of moral relativism across his record, we would do well to continue to hold him to account for his own behaviour. In proclaiming, during his artfully choreographed public apology, that he was just a human being, Zuma sought to drag all of us down to his own level of moral turpitude”; and the Pretoria News wrote that “Zuma is not fit to lead a country where women’s rights are high on the agenda, where the fight against Aids is, or should be, an urgent national priority and where the protection of the weak and vulnerable is the duty of the powerful. South Africa deserves a president who can lead by example. Jacob Zuma has shown he cannot do that”. The Citizen labelled him “foolish” and the Financial Mail pleaded, “The great and the good in the ANC must surely know that Zuma is entirely unsuitable for the highest office in the land.”

There are many other examples.

And then there was the ANC itself, which called Zuma to account for his testimony before the party’s NEC. Quoting an anonymous NEC member the Sunday Times wrote that Zuma would be required to explain his “stupid statements” which “severely embarrassed the ANC”.

So, the Sowetan’s suggestion that Zille’s comments were ‘amazing’, ‘extraordinary’ and ‘new’ can be described as disingenuous at best, deliberately malicious at worst. Every single element of Zille’s quote was established fact, its tone was objective and, importantly, its content had long since been conceded by everyone from the ANC NEC to Jacob Zuma himself.

To run that story, in the manner the Sowetan did, was poor journalism; the consequence of weak editorial control and feeble judgment.

The editorial

Having effectively framed Zille, and facilitated the creation of an environment in which the ANCYL and MKMVA could happily practice their very particular mix of the unintelligible and the inexplicable, the Sowetan then saw fit to pass judgment on the whole affair the next day. This editorial, perhaps more so than the initial story, is deserving of a considered response, so misguided is its logic, senseless its argument and hypocritical its opinion.

“Cheap shots cost us dear” was the ironic headline, as if the paper’s story from the previous day had never existed. “We were not expecting the relationship between the ruling ANC and the official opposition, the DA, to be congenial,” it opined, “but the slugging match between the two, especially after we published a story in which DA leader and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille made scurrilous allegations against President Jacob Zuma pertaining to his domestic and personal arrangements – and the reaction to these, has gone too far.”

It takes either blissful ignorance or a grossly over-inflated ego, or both, for the Sowetan to pass that kind of comment after running the story it did, in the way it did, the day before.

Let’s look at some of those words and phrases in a bit more detail.

The word ‘scurrilous’, for example, is defined as follows: “abusive or defamatory”, “foul-mouthed or vulgar” or “wicked”. Now, remember, as set out above, Zille did nothing more than state the facts. She didn’t call Zuma “foolish” (like the Citizen) or describe his statements as “stupid” (Like an ANC NEC member). She just repeated what everyone had long since agreed. To suggest that is defamatory is silly; certainly it wasn’t wicked or vulgar.

On the other side of the exchange, the ANCYL had released a statement which said the following about Zille: “Zille has appointed an all male cabinet of useless people, [sic] majority of whom are her boyfriends and concubines so that she can continue to sleep around with them…” and “the fake racist girl who was dropped on a [sic] head as child should understand that South Africa will never be a Mickey-mouse Republic like she wants to portray it.” (The MKMVA would release its own stupefying statement on the 13th.)

To imply, as the Sowetan did, that there is some sort of equivalence between those two sides is to ignore the blatantly obvious and reveals a profound misunderstanding of the word ‘scurrilous’ and its application.

The editorial continues: “Zille’s attack on Zuma was unwarranted and opportunistic. It was a flimsy attempt to divert attention from the undesirability of having an all-male cabinet.”

The implication here is that criticism of Zille’s cabinet was justified and correct and that it was Zille, as opposed to those people obsessed with quotas and political correctness, who initiated this exchange – that the attack on Zille’s cabinet was legitimate, but her response, illegitimate.

I am not going to defend the cabinet here, Zille has done that quite expertly and coherently here and here. But it worth mentioning that there certainly is something deeply problematic with being labelled sexist by an institution whose leader (and let’s not forget his subsequent assault on homosexuality) has behaved in a fundamentally sexist fashion.

Again, one need look no further than the newspapers themselves for confirmation of this. Take the Cape Argus for example. Subsequent to the ANC Women’s League nominating Zuma as its presidential candidate (a decision which received far less coverage than Zille’s, I wonder what the MKMVA made of it?) an editorial described the move as a “body blow to the cause of equity” and argued that “the ANC Women’s League has a lot of explaining to do to the women of South Africa” before stating that “there are not many men in the ANC who have been so publicly outed on their lack of understanding of gender issues”.

Questioning the ability of the ANC to pass judgment on gender equity issues, as Zille did, is a perfectly valid point. It’s a bit like Eskom pronouncing on sound financial management.

The last refuge of the scoundrel

But things get better. The Sowetan continues, “It no longer matters who started it. Each ought to respect the other’s office even if they dislike the person occupying that office. Robust politics does not mean resorting to such juvenile behaviour. Now they have called untold damage to the office of the president and possibly stoked racial tensions.”

What a miraculous thing is ‘The Office of the President’. It cleanses all sins. The institution and the individual merge into a pure and virtuous union, indistinguishable, elevated above the norms and standards applicable to mortal men.

What nonsense. Those people who conveniently merge ‘The President’ (the individual) with ‘The Office of the President’ (the institution) are either unable to separate principle from practice or have a logical default, to which their analysis inevitably falls victim. If it is the former, and it is deliberate, then it serves as a safe hiding place, where the President’s actions are protected from proper scrutiny – the last refuge of the scoundrel. If is the latter, it’s nothing common sense cannot fix.

The reason people say one should respect ‘The Office of the President’, as opposed to just ‘The President’ is because ‘The Office of the President’ is defined by a set of principles and values to which ‘The President’ should aspire. Not vice versa. The President must aspire to embody those principles and values – hence the often asked question, ‘is this person fit to be President?’; those principles and values are not automatically adopted by the President on taking office.

Helen Zille never once undermined or degraded The Office of the President; quite the opposite, she pointed out – as a great many newspapers and commentators have done over the past three years – that Jacob Zuma does not embody those principles and values and that it is the ANC and Jacob Zuma who are undermining the Office of the President, by respectively appointing and accepting a position for which he is not fit. That is the duty of a loyal opposition, dedicated to upholding the Constitution – and of the fourth estate, who are tasked with a similar responsibility.

By saying what she did about Zuma, Zille was standing up for The Office of the President, upholding its ideals and protecting its standing. It had nothing to do with personal relationships and everything to do with Zuma’s conduct and behaviour, his principles and values.


There is a strong case to be made that what the Sowetan did was to create the news and then report on it. There can be no bigger indictment of a newspaper, the purpose of which is to be objective and accurate, informative and insightful.

Put bluntly, the Sowetan took a particular quote, presented it as ‘amazing’, ‘new’ and ‘extraordinary’ and gave it disproportionate prominence (the purpose of which was to further enhance the idea that it was new and dramatic) and then proceeded to pass judgment on the very thing it was guilty of itself: taking a cheap shot, that was unwarranted and opportunistic.

There can be little doubt that the pursuit of ‘the news’ had nothing to do with its decision to publish the story on its front page and everything to do with generating a fight between the DA and the ANC (the very thing it then proceeded to denounce); the fallout of which it would then proceed to gleefully report on in the following weeks.

That is not journalism. The newspaper should be ashamed.

This article was first published on 28 May 2009.

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