Western Cape Premier Helen Zille vs SAPA

Complainant: Helen Zille

Lodged by:  Michael Mpofu

Article: Zille is complaining about stories that originated with Sapa and were published on its news wire service, posted on Sapa’s twitter account on Friday, 20 February 2015, and broadcast on several radio stations.

Author of article: Jenna Etheridge

Date: 24 March 2015

Respondent: Sapa’s editor, Mark van der Velden


Zille is complaining about stories that originated with Sapa and were published on its news wire service, posted on Sapa’s twitter account on Friday, 20 February 2015, and broadcast on several radio stations.

She complains that the articles falsely stated that she had made a racist statement, while neither she nor any member of the Provincial Parliament had made any such alleged statement on the particular date, when various “points of order” raised by the ANC eventually resulted in the adjournment of the House by the Speaker.

The texts

The stories, written by Jenna Etheridge, reported on events in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature on 20 February 2015, when Zille’s State of the Province Address (Sopa) was disrupted by ANC MPLs.  Their disruption, by raising “points of order” for over three hours, resulted in the Speaker of the Provincial Legislature suspending proceedings twice and eventually adjourning the House. As a result, the Premier tabled rather than delivered her speech.

The first Sapa article, posted at 11:52, read:

The state of the province address in the Western Cape legislature was suspended for two hours on Friday after the ANC raised a point of order on a ruling made last year.

African National Congress chief whip Pierre Uys stood up before premier Helen Zille was due to speak and addressed speaker Sharna Fernandez.

He criticised the legislature for apparently changing its mind on how to deal with an alleged racist comment made by Zille in December.

Initially, the matter was to be referred to a judge president for review, but it was then decided to refer it to the legislature’s rules committee.

The second, published at 15:37, read:

The ANC took issue with the way [the speaker]dealt with a ruling made at the last provincial sitting in December, regarding an allegedly racist comment by Zille.

It was decided at the time that a court would review the matter independently.

Uys criticised the legislature for apparently changing its mind and referring the matter to the legislature’s rules committee.

The complaint in more detail

Mpofu says it was not a racist statement by Zille, but rather an alleged racist statement by the Leader of the Opposition in the Provincial Parliament, Mr Marius Fransman, and the subsequent impasse on how to deal with it, that led to the attempt by the ANC to disrupt her address.

“During the session on 2 December 2014, the Hansard records that Mr Fransman asked the Premier whether ‘the reason why (the Province) have only 5% of black procurement in road infrastructure is because black contractors are not able to build proper roads and it is only white contractors who can do that’.”


Zille responded that this was a distortion and a “deliberate untruth” because:

·         Fransman’s question was both a misrepresentation of the facts in respect of the number of BEE contractors procured for the construction of road infrastructure; and

·         of the implied racist motive attached to his fallacious and tendentious conclusion.

Two days after this interaction, the Deputy Speaker, who had presided over the sitting two days earlier, ruled that Zille’s statement regarding a “deliberate untruth” was unparliamentary. She subsequently withdrew the statement.

Mpofu says the Deputy Speaker also ordered Fransman to withdraw the question’s imputation of racism against Zille, which he refused to do.  This led to discussions outside the sitting between the Deputy Speaker and the Chief Whips of both parties, which culminated in an agreement that Fransman’s question would be referred to the Chief Justice, who would nominate a judge to adjudicate whether the statement was unparliamentary.

However, when the Speaker resumed the chair, she requested legal advice on this “agreement” and was advised that it would be unlawful to ask the Chief Justice to make such a ruling.  The Speaker therefore decided to follow this legal advice, and referred the matter to the Rules Committee as required by the rules of the House.

Mpofu: “It was this decision by the Speaker that the ANC objected to on 20 February 2015, on the occasion of the State of the Province Address. The ANC’s protest had nothing whatsoever to do with any statement by the Premier, let alone an ‘alleged racist statement by the Premier as alleged by [Sapa]’.”

He adds it was also inaccurate for Sapa to:

·         report that Uys had “criticised the legislature” for changing its mind on the issue of referring the ruling to the Chief Justice – in fact, he had criticised the Speaker for taking this decision, and not the legislature, as the legislature had made no such decision; and

·         suggest that the agreement was that a Court would adjudicate on Fransman’s statement – while it was supposed to be referred to a Judge by the Chief Justice.

Mpofu provided me with a copy of Hansard as well as a copy of the Speaker’s summary at the beginning of proceedings on 20 February 2015, before the ANC began its disruption of the proceedings. “[Etheridge] was present when the Speaker provided this summary.”

He adds that, after repeated complaints, the journalist attempted to correct her original article, but this was only posted on the Sapa news wire at 17:09 and 17:25 respectively – over five hours after the original story had been distributed.  “The correction was also inaccurate, and so obscurely written as to be incomprehensible as a correction of the original mistake, let alone an apology for it.”

The spokesman says Sapa did not make any effort to ensure that the radio stations and news agencies (who ran the inaccurate stories) understood that the original story was being corrected, let alone report the correction.

“The correction failed to report that, in fact, the Deputy Speaker had ruled Fransman’s question to be racist.  The supposed ‘correction’ persisted in keeping the ‘racism’ focus on the Premier by stating that Fransman had alleged the Premier had made a racist statement.

“Given the current South African political and social context, this distinction is fundamental.  Despite acknowledging the error, SAPA displayed a cavalier and taciturn attitude towards correcting it.  This is precisely the kind of reporting that contributes to an entirely misleading narrative of the governance practice of both the Premier and the governing party in the Western Cape Legislature.  This level of inaccurate and unprofessional reporting has significant consequences for the country.”

He concludes the articles stating that Zille allegedly made a racist comment could have been heard/read by over one million people before it was eventually corrected and posted on SAPA’s news wire service late on Friday afternoon.

“For this reason we believe that those who heard or read the inaccurate news stories will have concluded that the Premier made a racist statement. This is reinforced by the fact that I did a live interview on the eNCA news channel on Tuesday, 24 February (four days after the inaccurate article was published and corrected) and the first question asked by the interviewer was what racist statement the Premier made in the legislature.

“We therefore believe that millions of people have been left with an inaccurate and completely unwarranted negative view of Premier Helen Zille, in particular that she is racist.”

Sapa’s response

Van der Velden replies that Sapa (and not the individual reporter, against whom Zille initially demanded action) is accountable.

He says: “Sapa did indeed make an unfortunate and regrettable error of significant fact in its reporting of the provincial legislature’s SOPA function and its subsequent disruption. It should not have happened, but it did, and that was not good at all. No question about it.

“As soon as it became evident that the error had been made, and also in response to direct contacts from Ms Zille herself, Sapa did its best under the circumstances to formally correct the error in its subsequent news file to its authorised subscriber retail media platforms. There were no mala fides on Sapa’s part here, in spite of a number of very heated and threatening contacts directly from Ms Zille herself, via sms, prominently distributed tweets and phone calls to various Sapa staffers, including eventually myself later in the evening, over a considerable period.”

The editor attached a full set of the relevant editorial reports and corrections issued by Sapa on this event, and also a chronology of some of the interactions and contacts with Zille and her spokesman, compiled by the reporter concerned, as well as some of Zille’s tweets. “It would appear that, initially, [Mpofu] was satisfied with the efforts to correct the errors as best possible, but that the Premier herself later insisted on a fully fledged complaint to the Ombudsman.”

He says it is clear that Zille was, and probably remains, unhappy with Sapa’s efforts to put matters right and in her criticism of Sapa’s “poor coverage” of a significant news event. “It is regrettable we cannot satisfy her, but I agree with one aspect entirely: Sapa, with its currently crippled resources as it faces imminent closure due to lack of funding by its members, should simply have decided to NOT send any reporter to the event at all. Rather not do a job if it likely cannot be done properly with appropriate resources. Ms Zille may rest assured she will not have this problem with Sapa again.”

Mpofu again

Zille’s spokesman replies that the original, inaccurate article got a lot of coverage and was extremely damaging to Zille’s reputation, and that Sapa’s correction “did not undo the damage done, and indeed in several respects compounded the problem”.

He concludes, “The corrections were not only inaccurate, but so obscurely written that they were incomprehensible as a correction of the original mistake and were also posted late on the Friday afternoon, a couple of hours after the original articles were published on their newswire. SAPA also did not provide a retraction or an apology when correcting the article.”


After having perused all the documentation that was provided to me, I am not convinced that Sapa has adequately and sufficiently corrected the mistake to which its editor has admitted – even though this office has all the sympathy in the world for the impossible situation that Sapa finds itself in at the moment.

Sapa is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         2.1: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         2.6: “A publication shall make amends for publishing information…that is found to be inaccurate by printing, promptly and with appropriate prominence, a retraction [or]correction…”

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The breach of the Code is a Tier 2 offence.


Sapa is directed to state categorically that it made a mistake by accusing Zille of making a racist remark, and to apologise for the mistake. It should provide me with the text prior to publication, and should end with the following words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

(I am cognisant of the fact that Sapa cannot force the media to report to its outputs.)


Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman