When I retired from formal politics, I resolved to catch up with a world that (in many ways) had passed me by during 15 years of diary-slavery.
My top priority was to better understand the positive potential of communication technology for amplifying ideas.
I have had much experience of the negative potential. Winston Churchill’s warning that “a lie will travel half way around the world before the truth has time to put its pants on” has been magnified many fold by technology.
As the saying goes, evil triumphs when good people do nothing, and the time has come to harness the full potential of communication technology to promote the ideas that will make our democracy succeed.
That is the role I have taken on as policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, where my job description is a mere five words long: “Fight the battle of ideas”.
I intend harnessing the full power of communication technology to do so and position the principles of classical liberalism where they belong: in the rational, pragmatic centre of South African politics.
There is a lot to learn. Like many people my age, I still get most of my news and analysis from newspapers, radio and television. Yes, I have dabbled in social media, but having a Facebook and Twitter account is merely scratching the surface. It is like boiling an egg -- and describing it as “cooking”.
So my next horizon is the Podcast. I am embarrassed to say that, until May this year, (when my term as Premier ended) I would not have been able to explain what the word means. I had certainly never actively sought to locate a Podcast, except by opening a link on Twitter or Facebook.
Now that I know what a Podcast is and how to look for them, a new world has opened. I have subscribed to my favourite podcasters, following specific people or themes that interest me. What’s more, I have started making video podcasts as well, and posted them on Youtube, Spotify, and i-Tunes and my website helenzille.com.
So what is a Podcast?
The word Podcast is a combination of i-Pod and broadcast. The i-Pod is a device that took the technology world by storm in 2001 and looked like a big mobile phone with earphones.
The earphones outlasted the device. Before long the i-Pod was replaced by the smart phone, which incorporates a range of functions and applications that were previously performed by different devices.
The original i-Pod was used to download music, and it changed the way young people accessed their favourite tunes. In my generation, we could do it by visiting a music café and putting a coin in the jukebox. Alternatively, we could send a request to a presenter on a radio station, and listen to the same programme a week later hoping it would be selected; or we could buy the vinyl seven-single (and later the CD).
Today, all this is done on various software platforms through a smart-phone and can be amplified by other devices to provide music for any function -- from a dinner to a djol.
The technology extends far beyond music to any kind of broadcast, hence the name Podcast.
The Podcast is essentially “radio on demand”. It is providing an alternative to traditional radio in homes and cars worldwide. Instead of tuning in to your favourite station, in the hope that something interesting may come up, you can simply open your favourite podcast site, and listen to the latest offering on a topic that really interests you.
There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts, both video and audio, that can be played on any smart phone or computer.
At the same time anyone can become a purveyor of ideas, through audio or video, and if they “hit the mark” they can build a big audience on Youtube, Spotify or i-Tunes.
My new interest in podcasting has taken me to a lot of sites, such as PewDiePie, a 20-year-old Swede (real name Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg) whose has over 100-million subscribers. I tried to watch a few of his offerings, to understand what drove his success, but I soon realised I am not his target audience!
But I have subscribed (free of charge) to a range of video and audio Podcasts, from the Rubin Report to Quillette, which speak to my interests. And, what’s more, I have now started my own, to raise the big South African issues in a global context.
I have called my podcast series Tea With Helen (following the impact of this name during my discussion over Tea with Thuli Madonsela, the former Public Protector), after our publicly expressed differences on Twitter around the use of the coded-term “white privilege”).
Because I enjoy debating controversial issues with people who disagree with me, I am using the tagline “If you disagree, let’s have tea”. And the little company I have set up with two colleagues is called the GodZille Media Group.
So far I have discussed some tough issues with columnist and editor Peter Bruce (about Ramaphosa’s New Dawn); Writer and editor Ferial Haffajee (about freedom of speech), Adam Habib (the challenges facing SA universities) and Max du Preez, where our discussion got so heated, that we could not even agree what we were talking about.
I do not have a single style; I adjust my approach according to the topic and the tone adopted by my guest. Some will be investigative, others will convey an opinion, others will simply explore ideas.
And I will soon move beyond videos. I am really interested in doing audio podcasts too. The possibilities are endless.
Back in 1979, Bruce Woolley and his band, the Camera Club, released the hit single called “Video killed the Radio Star”. It reflected the concerns about newly emerging media technology, ranging from the video to the “horrific” prospect of a computer composing a symphony!
The song ends with the prophetic words: “We can’t rewind, we have gone too far.”
That is true. And while technology can be used to amplify lies and promote authoritarianism, it can also be used to promote values that are essential to advance an inclusive democracy. As long as those of us who believe in these things stay abreast of where communication technology is moving.
That is what I plan to devote much of my “retirement” to doing.
A version of this article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.