It has been disturbing to see how seasoned mainstream journalists have responded to and interpreted the events surrounding the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the past few weeks.

Assumptions have been made and opinions expressed that appear to have no foundation in any analysis of the facts or which merely reflect the writers’ unalloyed biases.

Common among them is denying Herman Mashaba and Mmusi Maimane’s agency in their own decision-making. This is a measure of the paternalism reflected in our mainstream media. 

James Selfe resigned as DA federal executive chair in June 2019, the resignation taking effect in October when the next federal council meeting was to elect a successor.

Athol Trollip, Helen Zille, Mike Waters and Thomas Walters stood for the election on 20 October. Against all expectations, Zille won.

The very next day, 21 October, DA Johannesburg Mayor Mashaba resigned, citing the election of Zille as being a ‘victory for people who stand diametrically against my belief systems’.

Mashaba said that the reason for his resignation was that he didn’t want the party to be taken over by ‘right wing’ elements and because his principles did not accord with Zille’s.

Mashaba is a street fighter; it’s odd that Zille’s views were not worth his staying on to oppose them at the party’s still-to-be-held policy conference. Is it because the majority of those voting on 20 October were black and must largely have supported Zille?

Mashaba became disliked by his own caucus to whom he stopped listening, but he was always open to meeting with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

On 23 October, Mmusi Maimane announced his resignation as DA leader.

Maimane had commissioned a committee to review the reasons for the DA’s poor performance in the May election. The committee, chosen by Maimane, concluded that ‘while [Maimane is] immensely talented, committed to the cause, hardworking and widely liked’, he could also be ‘indecisive, inconsistent and conflict-averse’.

The review committee’s report also referred to his lack of clarity about the party’s vision and direction; confusion within the party about its position on key issues; deep divisions within the national caucus; and a breakdown in trust between Maimane and some of the party’s structures. With a critique like that, political leaders must resign.

Carol Paton of Business Day said that whether ‘he has been a good leader or not, he has become the face of the DA and a household name who enjoys a significant amount of public admiration. But what households, especially black households, are observing right now is a black man being put in his place by a white woman. After this we can be sure that trust in the DA will be lower than ever.’

Paton implies that the quality of Maimane’s leadership is irrelevant or secondary to his being the ‘face of the DA’ and a ‘household name’ who enjoys significant public admiration. Being the face of a party does not trump running it successfully.

In reality, as his performance as leader deteriorated, his being the face of the DA became a source of disenchantment among voters, and his  followers drifted away. Paton displays the common error of confidently judging what blacks may or may be ‘observing’.

Why was Zille treated by Maimane as if she alone was responsible for his resignation? If one of the other candidates shared her convictions and won the vote, would he still have resigned?

Zille is the person who got Maimane into the leadership post within only four years of his joining the DA. This proved in retrospect to be an instance of the danger in championing young black people with insufficient experience as a way to attract black votes away from Jacob Zuma’s ANC.

Zille’s mistake was in thinking that colour could supersede the long, hard slog that is indispensable for gaining experience. Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s former Parliamentary Leader, has a formidable intellect and is hugely articulate, but her downfall came from inexperience. Mazibuko quit parliament in May 2014 at the tender age of 34.

Bias and shallow analysis have also been displayed by Stephen Grootes of SAfm and Daily Maverick.

In Daily Maverick, Grootes posed the question, ‘who could possibly replace Maimane’, as if there was no one who could. Again, an assertion without analysis.

Grootes said that because of the problems the DA had with managing diversity, Maimane was such an attractive proposition for Zille. Grootes doesn’t explain what he means by ‘diversity’ and doesn’t explain what the party’s problems were in ‘managing’ it.

Tackling former president Zuma was well-suited to Maimane’s personality; handling Patricia de Lille’s disciplinary hearing wasn’t. Maimane’s failure to act decisively on the De Lille matter allowed a controversial and possibly dishonest leader the space to resign, claim the ‘moral’ high ground and criticise the DA at every turn.

Steven Friedman in Business Day opined that if the DA survived, the best it could hope for was ‘to remain the voice of racial minorities’, adding: ‘It has never won more than 5% of the black African vote. A DA that has just signalled that its centre of gravity remains with minorities is unlikely to improve much on that performance.’

Presumably the assumption about the party’s reliance on minorities is based on the supposition that blacks had a unanimous view of Maimane. The DA may improve its black support or not, but black growth took place under Tony Leon and Zille, not Maimane.

In the Daily Maverick, Ismail Lagardien’s style is reflected in this statement: ‘It remains unclear how equal rights would be bestowed on settler colonialists and indigenous people without consideration of the historical injustices which privileged the settlers.’

However, Lagardien credits Helen Suzman with courage in opposing the banning of the Communist Party, individuals and organisations. She also fought against gender discrimination, especially against black women.

Lagardien’s loss of credibility is highlighted by his view that journalists are guided by a set of principles and ethics and a code of conduct that precludes outrage, anger, annoyance or even subtle statements. ‘Anger and outrage are considered to be “irrational” and do not meet the standards of “reason” and the scientism that props up notions of objectivity. Seniority, and when you start writing a column or commentary, make a bit more room for stating an opinion, although it is always good practice to have some basis of truth to support expressed opinion.’

Embarrassingly, Lagardien tries to impute questionable motives to Zille in her investigation of Steve Biko’s death 42 years ago. He offers sarcastically that surely ‘she cannot be racist, right-wing, nasty, mean or one of those new paleo-conservative “classical liberals”.’ We know that he means she is any or all of these terrible things.

‘We can conclude that Helen Suzman would not be too thrilled by what is happening among the liberals,’ he goes on. ‘I was one of her fiercer critics as a journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s, but she was basically a decent person who believed in inclusivity, diversity and had no problem with race-based politics.’

Lagardien can’t possibly know what Suzman may have thought. It’s more likely that she would have been appalled at the drift away from liberal values in favour of race-based policy.

Clearly we live in an era in which opinion in the media is a substitute for facts.

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  1. It’s been evident for some while now that the media are united in their loathing of the DA and anything it does, good or bad. Quite what sort of country people like Grootes, Friedman and Paton are yearning for is unclear from their writing but what they are likely to get without the classic liberalism of the DA is unlikely to make them happy. As ever, one must be careful what one wishes for……

  2. “Lagardien can’t possibly know what Suzman may have thought. It’s more likely that she would have been appalled at the drift away from liberal values in favour of race-based policy.

    Clearly we live in an era in which opinion in the media is a substitute for facts.”

    I am pleased that Lagardien has finally stuck his head above the parapet. As Ms Gon points out, opinion and facts are stirred into the toxic brew that constitutes South African Journalism. What we are left with is Pap.


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