Tablet saga reveals Zille’s bizarre blind spot - yet again
She always resorts to logic when she has her back to the wall, but she always fails to grasp the power of perception
My son, now studying engineering at university, raved about his high school maths teacher. The man was an inspiration, he said, and judging from the overall reaction to this young educator among pupils at Westerford, his opinion was universal.
There was huge disappointment when Paul Maree, the son of Helen Zille, resigned to launch Paper Video, but his talents – and those of his accounting teacher wife, Gretl – appear to have transferred smoothly to the world of online tuition.
Paper Video now hosts more than 12,000 teaching videos on its website, presented by the Marees and others, and they’re free to tens of thousands of registered users thanks to sponsors such as SA Breweries, Momentum, Investec and Old Mutual.
The existence of those sponsors, who underwrite the livelihood of her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, is the inconvenient truth the Western Cape premier chose to ignore on Wednesday when she responded furiously to the public protector’s finding that she breached the executive ethics code.
According to the ANC’s Cameron Dugmore, who laid the complaint against Zille with Busisiwe Mkhwebane, in 2014 she arranged preferential treatment for Maree so he could load Paper Video resources onto 150 education department tablets which were then used to give free maths lessons to pupils in Khayelitsha.
Mkhwebane found no evidence that Zille was improperly involved in a procurement process, but “the premier’s relationship with her son in this matter constituted private interest which was sufficient to influence or appear to influence the exercise of her official duties”.
Indeed, Paper Video’s website acknowledges the importance of its 2014 experiences: “These acted as a proof of concept and the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from our first users after the 2014 NSC exams prompted the expansion of the Paper Video offering.”
Throughout her career, Zille has resorted to rationality and logic when she’s found herself with her back to the wall, and she did it again on Wednesday with a 13-point retort in which she acknowledged there might have been a perception of conflict of interest.
“I took care to prevent this, by writing a letter to the director-general, which I copied to other officials, saying that the tablets had to be made available to anyone else wanting to use them for the same purposes. In this way I ensured that my son would not receive special treatment,” she said.
Her letter no doubt had the opposite effect. Does Zille really imagine that having received her missive, any official in the Western Cape would have turned down Maree’s request to borrow the tablets?
The correct course of action would have been to distance herself entirely from the business where her son is one of two directors. As it is, company records list his address as the premier’s official Cape Town residence, Leeuwenhof, and in 2015 Zille was the driving force behind the Western Cape government’s e-learning portal, where Paper Video is a prominent content provider.
An inability to comprehend the power of perception and behave accordingly has been Zille’s Achilles heel, even as she has chalked up laudable achievements as an MEC, a mayor, a party leader and a premier.
It happened when she welcomed a weekly farmers’ market to Leeuwenhof without thinking permission might be needed; when she carelessly tweeted about colonialism; when she hosted a matric ball that kept Leeuwenhof’s neighbours awake into the early hours; and when she reacted defensively to complaints from police protectors about her rottweilers.
Zille can go DA-blue in the face protesting that Paper Video is a force for good, and no one will disagree with her. But as long as her family are making a living from it, and she helps to promote it, she makes herself a soft target.