It is true Lindiwe Mazibuko and Helen Zille’s relationship did become strained towards the end. But not irretrievably so, writes Gavin Davis.
Cape Town - All political parties are beset with internal dynamics and intrigue. It was the case with the DA under Tony Leon, it remains the case under Helen Zille and it will be the same under the next leader of the party. As Gareth van Onselen, formerly a DA official and now a journalist, himself points out, it is the nature of the beast.
It is true that Lindiwe Mazibuko’s and Zille’s relationship did become strained towards the end. But not irretrievably so. And certainly not because of what Van Onselen describes as authoritarianism on Zille’s part.
When Mazibuko was elected parliamentary leader she insisted on having her own, expanded staff complement. She had her own platforms and carte blanche to position herself as the counterpart to the president of the Republic. Zille strongly encouraged this, and ensured she had every opportunity to build her profile.
Mazibuko was given ample space to lead the caucus as she saw fit, immediately reshuffling the shadow cabinet and making subsequent changes without consulting the party leader, as is the convention. The reshuffle generated strong resentment within the caucus that is felt to this day.
If anything, Zille was criticised for being too “hands off” in her dealings with the parliamentary management team. The Employment Equity Bill debacle would certainly not have happened if she had been micro-managing Parliament. The fact is that Mazibuko simply ignored advice on how to deal with the bill which is how we ended up in the embarrassing situation that we did.
It is ironic that Van Onselen refers to my appointment as “DA cadre deployment” when he had been deployed to that position prior to me. Zille had nothing to do with my appointment. I applied for the job when the position became vacant and I was interviewed by James Selfe and Jonathan Moakes.
Furthermore, when I was appointed, Athol Trollip was the parliamentary leader, not Mazibuko. It is therefore false to insinuate that I had been sent to Parliament to exert control over her. I arrived in August and she was elected in October.
The first task I set myself was to repair the damage wrought by Van Onselen, my predecessor, in his internal war against Trollip. This had started when Ryan Coetzee, Van Onselen’s mentor, lost the election for parliamentary leader against Trollip. That particular battle had caused deep divisions in the caucus and created a culture of mistrust between MPs and staff.
My next job was to professionalise communication in Parliament and align them with the rest of the party. This entailed a restructuring process and filling the numerous vacancies that Van Onselen had simply not bothered to fill.
Like Van Onselen, I was empowered to sign off all party communication (including Parliament). This was not new. It was done in terms of a system designed by Coetzee and enthusiastically implemented by Van Onselen when he was in that position. As time went on, I delegated this responsibility more and more to other staff members. When it came to Mazibuko’s office, I rarely signed off on any of her communication, leaving that to her chief of staff.
The claim that her staff were isolated and marginalised within the party is simply unfounded. I happen to have an excellent working relationship with her chief of staff. Indeed, it was me who suggested to Mazibuko that he be promoted to the position of director of operations in Parliament. Such was my faith in his abilities, I soon left Parliament to take up an office at the DA’s national headquarters so that he could be in charge. Although I worked closely with him on a daily basis, I rarely got involved in the day-to-day running of Mazibuko’s office or the parliamentary operation in general.
The most disingenuous claim is that Mazibuko was shut out of the election campaign. The fact is that she was on sick leave for six weeks of the campaign. When she recovered, she was given speaking opportunities at all major events and her campaign team had free rein to set up events for her, which they did.
She did an excellent job of driving the Nkandla issue, although it was unfortunate that her illness prevented her from travelling to Nkandla to lay charges (which is why Mmusi Maimane went instead). Mazibuko featured on our national posters and represented the DA in the last two SABC election debates. The latter was my suggestion in recognition of Mazibuko’s brilliant debating abilities.
What many people do not know is that she was the first in our party to be asked to make herself available for the nomination of Gauteng premier candidate. She declined, later telling people she turned it down because she saw it as an attempt to “sideline” her.
Had she been chosen as the Gauteng premier candidate, the same resources would have been put behind her. The decision to focus on Gauteng was a strategic one taken by party structures on which Mazibuko sat, and agreed. It had nothing to do with who the candidate was or any future internal elections. To say otherwise is paranoid and delusional.
It is amusing to read that Van Onselen thinks he “drives Zille crazy” with his almost daily diatribes against the party. It tells us a lot about his motives for driving a one-sided agenda in the media. He gets a kick out of it. He thinks that what he writes has a huge impact on the party and its leader. But the truth is, it doesn’t. Most people in the party simply roll their eyes when they hear his name. He has been reduced to an embittered former party hack, obsessed with settling scores with his erstwhile opponents in the party.
Zille has grown the support of the DA from 12 percent when she was elected in 2007 to 22 percent just seven years later. This is testament to her hard work, strategic insight and ability to keep the party united, despite the best efforts of some to sow division. She expects people to work hard, but gives them space to do their jobs.
Make no mistake, Zille is a strong leader. But she is strong enough to listen to criticism and accept or reject it based on her own assessment of the evidence. And she is strong enough to risk personal failure if she believes it is in the party’s interest to take a risk.
These qualities explain why she has stayed the course when so many others have stumbled at the first hurdle.
* Gavin Davis was formerly director of communications at the DA. He is a candidate MP for the National Assembly.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.