Don’t touch me on my race

2014-03-02 10:00

In 2006, a group of heavies wanted my colleague Adriaan Basson and I dead?–?at least they wanted us to imagine they wanted us dead.

Dropping hints through anonymous sources and calling us on our cellphones at odd times was more potent and less messy than actually killing us.

Our sin? We were investigating and writing about kickbacks given to government officials by a security company.

Harrowing as it was, this time seriously made me grow up as a journalist.

A journalist’s craft isn’t meant to be a comfortable one, especially when you want to write about things that matter. You’re bound to step on toes. You’re sharper if you always remain a little on the edge.

It is also a job that defines you because the professional qualities that make you a good journalist?–?integrity, compassion and perspective?–?are also personal qualities. Your reputation is everything.

DA leader Helen Zille, a former hack who has seriously angered apartheid bigwigs, knows this. When she started criticising me on Twitter last Sunday, on quite a personal level, she clearly went in for the kill.

It felt like watching a movie about my own life suddenly turn bloody. But it’s unclear what she wanted to achieve.

Give me a taste of my own medicine? I admit I do like to rip off politicians on Twitter, often cheekily.

Politicians, their supporters and some trolls often reciprocate. It’s fair. Did she want to silence me by intimidation?

I have broken stories about the DA, like when they first approached Mamphela Ramphele two years ago, unsympathetic of any strategic inconvenience caused to the party.

Or did she want to break me professionally? Her personal comments were definitely not aimed at improving my craft.

Perhaps it was all part of the DA’s new guerrilla strategy, like the controversial planned march to the ANC’s headquarters. Rubbishing the media has appealed to the disowned masses supporting Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema.

Maybe Zille was trying to pitch to them? If she was, nobody else in the DA knew about this strategy.

Or maybe this was just a meltdown, this time a little too publicly and a little too long before the elections. I cringed on her behalf and stayed silent hoping she would stop digging herself deeper into the hole.

Zille is one of my role models because of her incredible conviction, determination and work ethic. And it’s not very nice to see a role model crack.

Having to lead an opposition party through growing pains and too-slow growth can only be frustrating. She had gripes with my story on the DA’s internal divisions around land claims, which we are dealing with through the press ombudsman.

Still, she did not detail these gripes in her Twitter attack. Her racial comments shocked me. They echoed former ANC Youth League spokesperson Floyd Shivambu’s “white bitch” SMS to me. In both cases, I was surprised they had stooped to play the race card instead of dealing with the real issues.

Zille said I was from some “missus class” and implied that I should know my place as a white by at least not being critical of the DA. From her comments, it seemed like she thought I was some “try-for-black” by being a leftie or, in her view, pretending to be one.

In a highly politicised country like ours, with a history like ours, journalists can be opinionated.

In the bad old days, “neutrality” meant supporting the apartheid status quo. Poverty and inequality mean our status quo is still a broken one.

Expressing my views as a journalist (as fairly and even-handedly as I can) and writing stories that expose uncomfortable truths about parties across the political spectrum do not make me a party agent, unprofessional or biased.

It makes me a responsible South African.

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