The day John Steenhuisen blocked a whole news website (or two) on Twitter

The DA's John Steenhuisen, right, speaking to a man living in Manenberg about gang violence. Picture: Henk Kruger/ ANA/African News Agency

The DA's John Steenhuisen, right, speaking to a man living in Manenberg about gang violence. Picture: Henk Kruger/ ANA/African News Agency

Sensitive much?

When we noticed over the weekend that the DA’s chief whip in parliament, John Steenhuisen, had blocked this website on Twitter, my first reaction was to laugh.

Steenhuisen had been having a pretty rough week. Many on Twitter, particularly the DA’s detractors, were making fun of him after finding out last Sunday that he only has a matric certificate.

I told our newsroom on the Monday that I didn’t see what the big fuss was about – since, to be a member of parliament, the only qualifications you really need are to be a registered SA voter and not have a criminal record (and there are even exceptions there too). By those standards, Steenhuisen is almost overqualified for the job. But I had to concede that it’s the perceived hypocrisy of the “smug” DA – which has a long track record of disparaging the lack of qualifications of its opponents (particularly Jacob Zuma) – that made all this news about the degree-less Steenhuisen too good an opportunity for all the Twitter comedians and critics to pass up.

John, you’ll just have to take this one on the chin, old boy, I thought.

Except, he didn’t.

He’s clearly been exceptionally sensitive about the issue (which, by the way, as anyone who’s been teased should know, only encourages your tormentors).

TimesLive wrote a story last week about how Steenhuisen had gone on an apparent “blocking spree” on Twitter to spare himself the agony of all the mockery, and we referred to his alleged blocking activities – as reported by numerous Twitter users – in an article of our own.

When I asked Steenhuisen on the phone yesterday why he’d blocked us, he said he wasn’t happy that we’d reported on this “blocking spree” – the truth of which he said hadn’t been confirmed with him personally. He was disappointed that we hadn’t called him for comment about it.

And so, because he was angry about reports that he was on a blocking spree, he blocked us. Presumably, he blocked TimesLive too.

I suppose John Steenhuisen has a right to use a private Twitter account however he likes, but I couldn’t help but recall that President Donald Trump was told this year by a judge in New York that he could no longer block anyone, especially journalists.

In effect, the judge pointed out that the president was tweeting about things that intimately affected the lives of the people who had voted him into office, and so they had a right to know what he was saying. His blocking behaviour was – it turned out – in violation of the US constitution.

Similarly, as one of the most senior people leading the opposition in parliament, for John Steenhuisen to in effect attempt to quarantine what he says on a major social media platform from a well-established news website (or two) not only comes across as childish, petty and selfish, it calls into question whether he even understands that he is actually a servant of the people. We’re not there to make life nice for him. He’s there for us, and he is certainly not as entitled to the same levels of privacy and anonymity that your average Joe Soap is.

It’s amazing how many of our politicians appear to think they’re doing us all a favour out there. They don’t seem to realise or care how arrogant they may come across (even if they’re the “good guys”, as every single one of them seems to think he or she is). This is despite the fact that they would probably struggle to get the same kinds of salaries and benefits in the real world, where the rest of us have to find a way to pay not only our own bills but all the taxes that keep our politicians well fed and tweeting.

John Steenhuisen was additionally unhappy, he told me, that we’d written a “clickbait” story that gave the impression his fellow DA MP, Phumzile Van Damme, had a sex tape floating around.

Admittedly, that wasn’t the kind of story that was going to win us a Pulitzer, but it was meant as a joke and was categorised in our “Eish!” section. Van Damme went to town on us on Twitter about it, once again proving just how seriously a DA MP takes himself or herself. News24 covered the same story about Van Damme’s hilarious email scamster in a similarly clickbaity way – so did John Steenhuisen also block News24?

At this rate, there will be precious few websites left for him to get the news from.

I know we’re a website that often annoys everyone, and that’s fine – as long as we’re not treating any politician or their party differently to any other. The ANC, EFF and others often come in for a rough time from us. But none of their politicians has blocked us.

One can’t help but think that many in the DA believe they deserve better treatment from the media, and are more than just a little peeved when they don’t get it.

I’m sure Steenhuisen was particularly unamused about us reporting on his joke matric certificate, which some wit created in Photoshop and circulated on social media. Among other things, he scored 100% for ‘White Privilege’, which is a fair enough joke considering Steenhuisen’s backstory.

When even DA leader Mmusi Maimane apparently faced a backlash in his own party this year for even having suggested in a speech that “white privilege” exists, good luck expecting anyone from the DA to possess the self-effacement required to be able to laugh a joke like that off.

In the end, John Steenhuisen sent me a WhatsApp to confirm he’d unblocked us after I told him he could just contact us next time directly with his complaints, and we’d try to sort it out.


Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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