Newspaper's effort to launch fire-storm of outrage with FW-Maimane story goes awry
On Thursday evening the Mail & Guardian began launching teasers, on social media, for what it suggested was going to be a highly damaging story for Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane. The newspaper’s official twitter feed predicted:
“Hier kom groot kak: #Maimane, De Klerk and the alleged ‘political lessons’. Details in the M&G tomorrow.”
Mail & Guardian editor Verashni Pillay meanwhile tweeted:
“It's not every week you're quite certain your newspaper is going to upset both the ruling and opposition parties. *Dusts shoulder*”
“The phrase doing the rounds in our newsroom around tomorrow's ANC and DA story: "Hier kom groot kak". See why in tomorrow's M&G.”
The newspaper then published an image of its front page which had a large picture of FW de Klerk on the cover next to the headline:
“Uproar over Maimane’s ‘lessons’ with FW: As race tensions mount in the country, the DA leader refuses to comment on widespread claims in the party that he is taking ‘leadership lessons’ with apartheid-era president De Klerk.”
The story immediately began attracting negative comment. Outgoing Business Day editor Songezo Zibi tweeted:
“The DA is lurching from one PR disaster to the next. They must be properly dizzy now.”
ANC activists also began piling in claiming that the report confirmed their narrative that the DA was a racist party seeking a return to apartheid.
Spokesperson for the Office of the ANC Chief Whip in Parliament Moloto Mothapo commented:
“See how DA spinning machines spin this! Last Friday it was #Kruger, this Friday is #DeKlerk. Haunted by its past.”
Progressive Professionals Forum President Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi tweeted:
“May I humbly propose that the DA save us all the grief and just close shop. We are tired of dealing with Racism and deceit.”
However, the storm of manufactured outrage clearly building on social media was set back after Maimane tweeted an outright denial:
"1. M&G story utter nonsense. As Leader of the Opposition, I meet former Leaders & State Presidents as a matter of course.
2. I met with former President de Klerk once back in 2014. Just like I recently met with former President Mbeki. It's a non-story"
Pillay defended the story however, stating: “We spoke to 7 DA insiders RE De Klerk story & another 10 on racism in the DA. All too afraid to go on record thanks to a culture of silence” And “don't forget: we put these allegations to Mmusi and the DA. They refused to comment. Commenting now IS a little too easy”
In the paper itself the first paragraph of the article – written under the byline of Nelly Shamase and Verashni Pillay - stated: “Is DA leader Mmusi Maimane taking political classes from South Africa’s last apartheid-era president? While investigating claims of racism within the DA this week, four separate senior DA insiders confirmed to the Mail & Guardian that Maimane had visited former president FW de Klerk on various occasions.”
It quoted one source as saying, “He [Maimane] has been to his [De Klerk’s] house a few times and sought his advice on speeches and leadership and acting presidential. In the party they are known as ‘leadership classes’.” Three others were quoted commenting on the claims.
It is not clear from the report whether these sources had any direct or independent knowledge of the matter or were simply repeating the same rumour – one that had been circulating within party circles for several months.
The article said that Maimane would not answer specific questions about the claims, while a “spokesperson for De Klerk said he was not available to comment on the allegations as he [De Klerk] was travelling.” It commented:
“Regardless of whether the allegations are true, the perception that Maimane could be taking lessons from De Klerk is likely to cause further friction in a party already battling with a number of scandals around racism at a time of increased sensitivity in South Africa.”
Maimane’s early denials were supported by FW de Klerk, with only the date of their single meeting differing. In a statement issued on Friday morning the former president stated:
“There is no truth in the rumours that I am “tutoring Mmusi Maimane”. He has never been to my home and never sought my advice "on speeches and leadership and acting presidential”. I only met him once, at my office, in March 2015 when he paid me a courtesy visit.”
In various interviews on Friday Pillay defended the story, saying the newspaper stood by it, on the basis that the DA and Mmusi Maimane’s office had been given ample time to comment but had chosen not to. The counter-argument from DA spokespeople was that they had been sent a long list of claims, rumours and allegations – and had not been told that the Maimane / FW de Klerk issue was going to be the newspaper’s front page lead.
For the record here are the written questions sent by Shamase to the DA. The first set were sent to Mabine Seabe, Maimane’s spokesperson, on Wednesday afternoon:
From: Nelly Shamase Date: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 at 3:14 PM To: Mabine Seabe Subject: DA race and youth issues
I trust you are well.
I’m working on a story pertaining to race and youth issues within the DA and would appreciate if you could assist in facilitating official response from DA leader Mmusi Maimane on the following:
1 The country is in the middle of a re-ignited race storm effectively facilitated by former DA member Penny Sparrow whose racist comments resulted in a domino effect of sorts. Please comment on allegations by DA members that I have liaised with in various structures of the party who view today’s jobs march as a diversion tactic to steer the narrative away from race issues. The general consensus is that the DA has held multiple jobs marches and they don’t see how this one differs from the others as it’s a case of “more of the same”. Why not an anti-racism march, for instance?
2 Please comment on claims that Mbali Ntuli is to be charged internally for wishing the ANC a happy birthday on social media.
3 I may be mistake, so please correct me if that’s the case, but my understanding is that the DA Youth congress was meant to be held at the same time as the national one but that did not happen. Please explain why this is the case and whether there are any plans for a youth congress? Some members say DASO and the DA Youth are effectively non-existant – as evidenced by their absence in the #FeesMustFall movement and from the political landscape in general – and little to no resources are allocated to them. Please comment on this and expand on what resources are given to these structures if these arguments have no basis.
4 How many Daso branches are there are how many are active? Does the DA have provincial Youth leaders for the DA Youth; please expand accordingly. How many meetings has the DA Youth had in the past year and what role is Honourable Maimane playing in grooming them? Those I spoke to say they have lost faith in the youth structures as it seems as if the mother party doesn’t care about them.
5 Every person of color who spoke to me says they have experienced racism in the DA. Makashule Gana was even quoted in the Sunday Times saying he’s experienced it as well and wants action taken. You have been quoted on news24 responding to Lindiwe’s BDLive piece as saying: “She is speaking in her own capacity,” yet my interactions with DA members show that this is a widespread problem. I am told that those who complain about racism are dismissed and told the party needs to focus on more pertinent issues such as jobs, education and the economy. Please comment on the above and what advice would you give to a DA member who is a victim of racism.
6 Those I spoke to are in support of your racism speech but say for things to really change and for you to fully transform the party across all spheres you need to stop dancing to the tunes of the “brains trust” which has been identified as Atholl Trollip, John Steenhuisen, Paul Bowie, gavin Davis, Jonathan Moakes and Geordin Hill-Lewis. Please comment on this.
7 Those who don’t “toe the line” or do as they're told are burnt, members say. Individuality and opposing views are frowned upon and those regarded as “ungovernable coconuts” are victimized. Please comment on this.
8 What are you doing, or going to do, to instill faith in your members that you will change things for the better?
Any other comments you would like to make are most welcome. A speedy response would be most appreciated.
As can be seen from the above no mention was made of the FW de Klerk allegations. Various DA politicians also received an SMS stating:
“Hi. It's Nelly Shamase from the M&G. Please can you comment on allegations that you are a member of the 'brains trust" that control Mmusi as DA members say they will only have faith in Mmusi's leadership once he stops dancing to the tune of this group. Thanks”
The following morning, on the day of publication, Shamase sent through a further email:
From: Nelly Shamase Sent: Thursday, January 28, 2016 8:32 AM To: Mabine Seabe Subject: Re: DA race and youth issues
Please let me know when to expect response to the questions below as I’m under pressure from the news desk.
Following various meetings with DA representatives yesterday the so-called “brains trust” has been expanded to include Helen Zille, Tony Leon, James Selfe and FW de Klerk. Mmusi has been to de Klerk’s house a few times to seek advice on speeches, leadership and “acting presidential” so please can he also provide response to that please.
Sometime on Thursday afternoon the DA’s national spokesperson Phumzile Van Damme sent through the following reponse to the M&G:
“The Democratic Alliance is the most diverse party in South Africa's history. Under Mmusi Maimane we are united and we are growing.
Mmusi was widely credited with setting the agenda with his recent speech on race, and again yesterday with the DA's historic 20,000-strong march for jobs. You cannot separate job creation from racial exclusion - we need to create jobs to give young, poor black South Africans a chance to overcome poverty.
For the rest of the questions: We are not going to give oxygen to nameless and faceless individuals who make unsubstantiated claims behind the cloak of anonymity. We have a strong culture of robust internal debate and they are welcome to raise any matters through the relevant party structures.”
The question remains why the M&G went to print with the story before either securing direct confirmation or denial from one or both of the named parties - especially as it could have simply held it over to the following week to allow for further verification.