Politician’s life of confrontationComment on this story
Cape Town - One morning he was wearing yellow, the next he was in blue. Never had a fashion statement been more controversial for politician Masizole Mnqasela.
“They called me traitor, coconut, whitey,” he laughs. “They even said my ancestors were angry with me.”
But he was unfazed. Sitting in the dining room of his home in Parliamentary Village, he describes in his easy-going way a life of confrontation – from the early days of squaring off with his oppressive lecturer, to his most recent conflicts with his party’s leader.
The firing line is where the DA’s spokesman for home affairs has spent much of his life.
“I was ready for what the ANC was going to throw my way long before I moved over,” he says.
Mnqasela was born in the Western Cape in 1981, but was sent to Tsolo in the Eastern Cape to live with his extended family.
In the village, just 42km north-west of Mthatha, he balanced his uncle’s two stringent requirements.
“First, I must take the livestock to the grazing lands; second, I must go to school. If I don’t do this, I get a hiding. This was non-negotiable. There was no going to the courts on this one.”
He remembers waking up just as the sun crested the horizon, its beams almost cooled in the winter air as they illuminated his small home, which he shared with his cousin.
While his cousin was given the easy task of rounding up the goats, well-known for their sense of direction, he had to herd bleating sheep that scattered in every direction except the right one.
“I would get to the grazing lands and then had to run back to get ready for school. On the way I would often bath in the river. It was freezing, but it was the only chance I was going to get. I was already late.”
In 1991 he visited Khayelitsha, where his parents and siblings shared a small shack in site C. It was the first time he had met some of his younger brothers and sisters, but what stood out for the then-11-year-old was the cramped space his family lived in.
Mnqasela, who had his own house and bed in the Eastern Cape, was now sleeping on the floor under a prickly blanket. “I didn’t think I would stay here, but… my mother convinced me to live with them.”
With his uncle’s words and hidings still drilled into his mind, and his mother picking up the stern relative’s baton, Mnqasela focused on school. He remembers being very much aware of a township in peril, where basic services were a luxury.
“It was something I wanted to change from an early stage.”
As his father flitted in and out of the front door, working for a dairy firm and later an insurance company, Mnqasela finished school and studied electrical engineering at the Cape Technikon.
But that ended quickly after he was offered an apprenticeship at Saldanha Steel. He was on the factory floor, forging the tough metal from its liquid form.
As he went on to work for Telkom, later setting up his own telecommunications company, he started to become disillusioned by the ANC Youth League, which he had been part of since the late 1990s.
“I noticed things. You know, there were all these developments springing up in Khayelitsha and these councillors were in charge of putting people on the lists to move in,” he says. “Then I heard some of them were trading spots for sex with young women.”
When he wrote to the head office to complain, he was ignored.
“I was used to being listened to. This was not right in my eyes.”
By 2002, he was wearing a blue shirt.
And while he may have slipped down the candidate lists for the province, seemingly losing favour with his fiery leader Helen Zille, the party is where he wants to stay.
When I mention his confrontation with the premier, he laughs. “Oh, this one.”
In 2012, Mnqasela had to apologise after a set of disciplinary proceedings by his own party. These followed accusations he had made in a letter that Lindiwe Mazibuko was not black enough to lead the party.
He also accused Zille of running the party like a “spaza shop”.
“We are still friends. It’s something she invites, she wants me to criticise her… Yes, maybe the way I said it wasn’t right. But I was feeling uncomfortable, and if I didn’t say anything now that would be wrong,” he smiles.
While he may have fit the description of Helen Zille’s “educational refugees” he says the tweet that spawned the term did not offend him.
“It was taken out of context. There was a lot more to it and it actually came from a good place,” he says.
“She was trying to point out that the Eastern Cape was collapsing and people were coming here for better opportunities.”
He did however, rally behind a move to have the comment withdrawn, which she later did.
“Because our rival party politicised the statement it left the wrong impression on the general public.”