After Lindiwe Mazibuko’s shock announcement, the DA must inevitably address the elephant in the room – race and leadership, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
The Democratic Alliance’s Lindiwe Mazibuko has made absolutely the right call to put her political career on hold to study briefly at Harvard University instead.
But while the decision is good for her, it will force the DA to dive into debates that it might have hoped to manage a little better internally. Or, rather, that party leader Helen Zille might have liked to manage with greater planning and control.
First, let’s consider the decision from Mazibuko’s perspective. At 34, she’s young, and has really had a career in politics only so far.
She’s clearly intelligent – her swift analytic ability in debate is clear for any dispassionate listener to see, regardless of conflicting observations about tonality and the content of her ideological convictions – and she could easily have a successful career in many other fields: corporate South Africa, as an academic, or whatever else she is deeply passionate about.
The opportunity to study at one of the world’s top universities is not just career-enhancing. The experience of living abroad, and the rare privilege of spending time with some of the world’s top thinkers, teachers, international peers your own age, leaders both famous and infamous visiting campus, is priceless.
Any and all of my friends who studied at places like Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Yale, NYU, Harvard etc can testify to this. Many are already brilliant South Africans, working as researchers, lawyers, corporate leaders, writers and in other fields.
They just don’t flaunt their formative years, which included their experiences as scholars abroad.
As a committee member for the Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford University, we often struggle to convince talented South Africans not to exclude themselves from opportunities for self-improvement.
Let committees decide. Don’t be choked by self-doubt.
And so my first take on Mazibuko’s decision isn’t political. It is to salute a young South African to take the opportunity to go and absorb every bit of knowledge from Harvard while she’s there.
My confidence and determination to construct good arguments and ignore trolls in the public space in South Africa would be far less if I hadn’t spent a few cocky years in the chambers of the Oxford Debate Union.
So well done to Mazibuko. Forget about the DA and South African politics while there, if you can, and have a rich intellectual and social experience.
Local politics isn’t going anywhere. Elite opportunities do go away.
Okay. Okay. What about “the politics of her decision”, you may insist. Honestly, I think it was a sincere decision not rooted in an intractable fallout between Zille and Mazibuko.
Sure, Mmusi Maimane is closer to Zille, but Mazibuko would have had a better chance of beating Maimane in a battle for DA parliamentary caucus leader.
She now has experience, which she lacked when she beat Athol Trollip. Maimane has no parliamentary experience. And even with Zille’s backing, the caucus would likely have pushed back against any Zille pressure.
At any rate, it’s far from obvious Zille would have thought it necessary to have Mazibuko replaced.
Also, given the ANC’s reduced majority in Gauteng, especially in the City of Joburg, Maimane would be under huge pressure to justify leaving Gauteng.
After R100 million was reportedly spent on his campaign here, he should arguably stay put and spearhead the local elections campaign and win a metro or two for the DA. Or at least try to.
Mmusi has decided to go to Parliament which has opened a whole new Pandora’s Box for the caucus.
But it isn’t all good news for the DA. The problem is, “If not Mmusi – and he might yet insist – then who will be DA caucus leader?”
The answer should be obvious if the DA took its philosophical colour-blind rhetoric seriously. Someone like a David Maynier or Trollip has gravitas and experience.
But they are the white men who were locked up during the election campaign. So would they make Zille nervous?
Just as Jack Bloom wasn’t the face of the Gauteng effort, so the experienced white DA leaders in Parliament may not be black enough for Zille’s liking. Yet they have the experience and the skill.
Which pretty much leaves bringing in someone like Patricia de Lille or Wilmot James. They aren’t obvious choices though. De Lille, together with former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein, are my textbook examples of historically brilliant MPs. But she’s now rightly at the heart of Cape Town politics and administration. Leave her there.
Dr James I respect academically, but um… ja. Moving on.
Here’s the irony of the last few paragraphs. It’s racial politics, isn’t it? If you think I’m making this stuff up, go on your knees and ask your Maker to turn you into a fly on the wall when the DA insiders discuss this headache over the next few days.
Of course the party could prove me wrong and ignore race, and choose a caucus leader based on skill and experience. Or the party could turn out to be South African, and grapple with the look of its leadership. It sure is a headache, though. And it will take more than a Panado to fix.
As if these leadership issues in Parliament aren’t enough, Zille has to decide whether to stay on as party leader after next year. She now gives the Buthelezi response when asked: “It depends on what my party wants me to do.”
The truth is she isn’t a megalomaniac. She’s feisty, sure, but ready for “the party” to ask her to step down. But they don’t have a succession plan, and Mazibuko going to Harvard makes the situation trickier.
It’s not obvious that Mazibuko would be the perfect successor; at least not now or next year. But to have Mazibuko physically absent and now only Maimane left as a known, public black African face of the party, but with divided support inside the party, is to expose again the elephant in the DA room – race, and leadership right at the top.
Politics inside the DA will be exciting to watch in the next few weeks. They have more battle lines internally than the ANC.
Zille may finally want to try her hand at some soft power to contain it all. And certainly she’ll need soft power to have her way.