The leaky bucket of media credibility

Helen Zille analyses the TimesLive report on her family's supposed water usage at Leeuwenhof Estate


The central paradox of the age of connectivity is that, despite the ceaseless bombardment of information and opinions, truth and facts are becoming increasingly elusive.

This should provide a niche market for print journalism. While fake news and distortions tend to dominate social media, print has an opportunity to enable readers to get closer to the truth by telling the story in all its complexity.

Some quality newspapers have recognised this niche, which is why they are surviving -- and even growing -- in a dying industry.

Far too many, however, do the opposite, either driving a transparent agenda, or merely attaching a megaphone to whatever happens to be trending on social media.

The upside of connectivity, however, is that readers can challenge misrepresentation. They can also follow particular journalists instead of buying newspapers. Over time, one gets to know which journalists try to stay true to the facts and their context. They earn the priceless commodity called credibility.

At the other end of the spectrum, one soon learns which journalists are driven by agendas, ranging from personal grudges to political bias. This has become so commonplace, that it is time to call it out where it occurs.

Which brings me to the subject of this article. It is the first in an occasional series that will try to get closer to the truth when facts are misrepresented, manipulated or egregiously distorted in the media.

This first one focuses on water usage at Leeuwenhof Estate, a property owned by the provincial government, on which stands a Manor House which is also a national monument in which successive Premiers have lived for the duration of their tenure.

During the early hours of Friday 15 September, I realised that water usage on the estate had become an “issue” when I connected to the Wi-Fi in the departure hall of Dubai airport during a two-hour wait-in-transit. I found a WhatsApp from a colleague asking me to read an online report on TimesLive to which, he said, it was essential to respond, before the radio breakfast shows opened. I read the article in amazement.

The headline read: “Parched Cape Taxpayers Fork out for Zille’s R90,000 Water Purifier”.

The key point of the article was that I (and my family) had failed to abide by water restrictions, with the headline insinuating that I was installing a water purifier to avoid water restrictions altogether.

The print version cited “evidence that Zille’s family has failed dismally to meet consumption targets set by the City of Cape Town, where she was former mayor.”

The online version drew attention to a linked article, emphasising that the City of Cape Town was now under level 5 water restrictions.

Obviously, if this angle were true it would be a strong and relevant story, because I have played a leading role in urging residents in the Western Cape to reduce their water consumption. It would reveal profound hypocrisy on my part, comparable say, to the chair of the AIDS council whose job is to promote safe sex, having unprotected sex with multiple partners.

So how did the journalist, Aphiwe de Klerk who covers provincial politics for The Times, and the sub-editor who wrote the headline, arrive at these conclusions?

From the spin they attached to an answer given by Donald Grant to a question in the provincial parliament in his capacity as provincial Minister of Public Works, about water usage at the manor house at Leeuwenhof.

On the basis of Grant’s answer, Aphiwe de Klerk concluded “Zille’s household used 32 Kl of water during July and 14 Kl in August”.

What he failed to mention was that Minister Grant’s reply showed that the July reading was merely an “estimate”, and not an actual meter reading, while August’s figure was an “actual” amount. Estimated water usage is always much higher than actual use -- sometimes more than double -- as illustrated by the difference between the July and August figures. But this crucial “detail” did not suit the spin of the story.

Analysing the house’s 2017’s water consumption based on five monthly “estimates” and three “actual” meter readings, De Klerk erroneously concludes: “In the year to date, Leeuwenhof residents have used an average of 165 litres of water per day”. If this were true, it would indeed be scandalous because level 5 water restrictions limit each person to 87 litres of water per day).

De Klerk arrived at this “conclusion” of the amount of water used per person, on the basis of Minister Grant’s answer to the ANC’s follow-up question about the number of people living in Leeuwenhof. Grant speculated that the number might be four. So de Klerk divided the sum of the estimated and actual meter readings by the number of days in the year from January till August, and then divided again by four, to arrive at a fictitious conclusion about per capita daily water consumption by Leeuwenhof’s residents. It was a classic example of adding 2 and 2 together and reaching 22, which he described as “evidence” of my failure to do what I was urging others to do.

The idea that a water purifier was being introduced so that I could personally “benefit” by evading water restrictions that apply to other residents, was presented as fact in a tendentious headline.

Of course it did not take long for social media to pick up the “line” with posts such as:

“2,8-million liters (sic) of fresh water runs (sic) underneath CT each day – Zille claims it for herself”

And “Helen Zille’s private water purifier cost drought-stricken taxpayers a whopping R90,000”.

So what are the facts? Firstly, it is impossible to analyse water usage on the basis of the number of people who actually live in Leeuwenhof. Approximately 30 additional people spend their working day on the estate, while the number of people in the manor house itself (to which the answer referred) ranges between six and ten during various times of the working day. They all spend more waking hours there than I do, and everyone, of course, uses the available facilities.

This is nothing new. It was the case under previous ANC administrations and remains that way today. Leeuwenhof is not a private residence. It is a national monument, the property of the state, and requires a significant number of garden, household and maintenance staff to sustain. Most of their services would be required, whether or not Leeuwenhof was used as the Premier’s residence.

In fact, when I became Premier, Johann (my husband) and I decided not to move to Leeuwenhof, and it was bluntly pointed out to us that our failure to do so would necessitate additional expenditure from the state, because apart from the upkeep and security of the estate, additional security would have to be provided at my private home.

From the first day we moved into Leeuwenhof, in mid-2009, we have attempted to “green” the estate. There is a huge amount of surface water, even during a drought, that runs off the mountain, into the sea.

Despite the abundant natural water supply, we began to indigenise much of the garden. When we arrived it was all pansies and petunias. Today there is a lot of fynbos and other “water-wise” local flora. The rose gardens are often under water because they are situated at the base of the estate where water run-off dams up.

Apart from the streams, drainage at Leeuwenhof was all but non-existent in 2009, creating significant damage through rising damp, crumbling tiles and walls, and rotting wood. These problems are being rectified by the Department of Public Works in stages, as they try to get to the root cause of the waterlogging and protect the heritage buildings.

One of the solutions is obviously water harvesting. From the start of our tenure (long before the drought set in) we have been trying to get Leeuwenhof off the municipal water grid. There is no need for the estate and its staff to use municipal water while mountain water rushes through the estate, into the sea. When I enquired recently why this process was taking so long, the Ministry of Public Works informed me of the red tape involved: Their answer verbatim was as follows:

“The City of Cape Town’s Water By-law of 2010, section 56 provides that ‘no person may use or permit to be used any water obtained from a source other than the water supply system of the City for domestic purpose’. ‘Domestic purposes’ are defined as ‘drinking , ablution and culinary purposes excluding toilets and urinals’. It follows therefore that until such time as the By-law is amended, Leeuwenhof cannot be taken off the municipal grid. The Department is in communication with the City about a way of being given approval.”

Minister Grant’s answer to Parliament last week was the first I had heard of the fact that a water purifier was, at last, being installed. I am not involved in the day-to-day running of the estate, which is done via the Department of Public Works through the estate manager, Mrs Hajirah Mahomed. Once this has happened all the people who live and work on the estate will use surface water, saving a great deal of municipal water.

But the question remains valid: What have we, as a family, personally done to ensure that we cut our water usage just like every other citizen is required to do.

When the water restrictions started, I discussed them with Mrs Mahomed, who immediately swung into action. She organised an official presentation to Leeuwenhof staff, stressing the importance of saving water, and guidance on how to do so.

She arranged for the swimming pool to be covered, to prevent evaporation, and she ensures that municipal water is never used to top-up the pool or to irrigate the garden. Since March there has been no irrigation at all.

Mrs Mahomed initiated the replacement of all washers in taps throughout the estate to ensure there are no drips. She has a vigilant monitoring system that reports and repairs any drip or leakage as soon as it occurs. To assist, smart water meters are being installed. This is a web-based water monitoring system which will determine exactly when and how much water is being used at which water point. This will detect leaks, pipe bursts and over-use immediately.

We wash dishes by hand, even after formal functions, because the dishwasher uses too much water.

Mrs Mahomed also organised bricks to be placed in all the large old cisterns that service the many toilets on the estate, so that they use less water. Obviously a “no flush” policy is complex to manage when there are many people (as well as many guests) using the same toilets. It is far easier to do this within the confines of individual families.

Two large JoJo tanks have been procured, so that we can harvest rainwater to wash laundry. This system is in its final stages, requiring only a pump to ensure the correct pressure required by the industrial washing machine.

The horticulturalist, Ms Yoliswa Sihawula, registered a very old borehole for use through the City of Cape Town, and there is no irrigation at all during winter months.

When I asked Mrs Mahomed about the report on the water purification system, she told me it was being installed in the catchment area at the gate to filter water for drinking purposes -- water that would otherwise run into the sea.

Given the number of people who use potable water at Leeuwenhof every day, this is a positive development.

In discussion with Minister Grant, following his answer to Parliament, I also learnt that apart from the water meter at the house, there are two other water meters on the property. Further follow-up has established that the Department cannot tell exactly which portions of the estate these meters service, but they are doing the necessary investigations to ensure they are closely monitored too.

As for my husband and I, we try to use so little water, that I sometimes get worried about the hygienic and aesthetic consequences. I shower briefly, once every three days, and for the rest wash in the hand basin. I used to wash my hair every day, but now only when I shower, with visibly negative consequences. However, I regard oily hair in a drought to be as much of a status symbol as a dusty car.

So, yes, there is a story here, Aphiwe. It is a story of how we are transforming and reducing water usage at Leeuwenhof, and harvesting water that would otherwise be wasted; if there is any scandal here, it is why it has taken such a long time to navigate all the red tape involved to arrive at this point.

The story is not the one that you, your sub-editor and the ANC sought to tell, and which the on-line outrage manufacturers so quickly picked up for their own purposes. It is not the first time you have spun a story like this, and each time you do, the price you pay is a little bit more of your journalistic credibility.