Meet the doctor behind government’s Covid-19 communication
Johannesburg - Dr Lwazi Manzi was in the midst of filming Africa’s largest co-production, The Professionals, a TV series, when she was called upon, about 18 months ago, to serve the Minister of Health.
With a budget of $27 million and working with a star studded cast, including Hollywood A listers, Manzi, one of a few independent black female producers, flew to the Durban Film Festival to meet and break the news to her business partner.
“I really didn’t want to leave, but there was no way I would refuse a call to serve either,” Manzi said about that emotional engagement.
Manzi, who spent 12 years as an emergency doctor, is Dr Zweli Mkhize’s media spokesperson and the Department of Health’s coronavirus communication conduit for the past year.
She has been the government’s go-to person for general health issues too.
Born into a politically conscious family, her grandmother, struggle stalwart Gladys Manzi, who has two streets in KwaZulu-Natal named after her, had impressed on her that it would be her responsibility to serve the country by harnessing her talents for the greater good.
“She believed in absolute and unencumbered freedom and that everyone should be given a fair opportunity to self actualize to the best of their ability.
“I grew up in the township of Mbali in Pietermaritzburg and I had a very happy childhood even though we were poor.
“The part where I lived, called Stage 3, was relatively sheltered from the tumultuous civil war that was characteristic of the 80’s, in townships and rural areas.
“Even as kids we were aware of the privilege of our location.
“Every now again the tragedies of the surrounding locations would seep into our safe haven.
“My house was a political home with much political discourse and many well recognised names coming and going.
“I took all these things for granted but my early years were particularly formative”.
Like many black families aspiring to escape the harshness of the townships, Manzi’s family moved to Hayfields when she was 11 year old.
“For me it was a personal tragedy and very tough. Without my friends, the quiet leafy streets of Hayfields, secure walls and gates, made me feel isolated.
“Two white boys, who lived opposite us, threw stones at me when I walked down the street. It was also the same year I was molested by an uncle who lived with us.
“The move was very unsettling for me but my parents handled the molestation superbly, and, in time, I understood that these transitions were necessary to elevate and grow.
“It’s important to speak out on childhood molestation because it is so common and so many of us have been through it.
“For anyone who has been through it or is going through it, it is possible to heal and grow but it’s very important that parents believe their children and act immediately, to protect the child from internalizing the guilt and shame.”
Manzi’s love for people and science resulted in her becoming a doctor.
While her family trusted her decision to pursue interests outside medicine, they stressed that her medical qualifications be protected.
“I pursued the film industry because I wanted to find a way of emancipating the African mind.
“Being a doctor, one observed the end results of systemic racial, gender and sexual discrimination as well as the systemic subjugation and relegation of vulnerable people.
“I was an emergency doctor for 12 years and I found that all the inadequacies and injustices of society manifested in the trauma room.
“Whether it be HIV and TB, interpersonal violence or diseases of lifestyle, sickness is the manifestation of oppression in one form or another.
“I wanted to find a way to dig deeper than dismantling the various forms of oppression, particularly economic oppression, and find a way of penetrating African minds en masse to emancipate them and find our own solutions.”
In July 2019, Manzi had to literally jump from film producer to media liaison officer.
Her maiden voyage was straight to Parliament for the introduction of the National Health Insurance (NHI) that turned into a media storm.
“My elation at being appointed did not last long. For the first month I cried every day. Eventually my tears dried up.
“I asked the Minister if I could be released at some point. He quietly listened to me as I poured my heart out as to why I wanted to leave.
“I felt like I was making too many mistakes and I was failing him and thought maybe someone else would do better.
“After I was done there were a few moments of silence, then he responded ’now what makes you think I would let you go?’
“I didn’t expect that. But it did teach me that you don’t give up just like that.”
Then Covid-19 landed in the country.
Stress levels were high but Manzi had learnt how to navigate the uncharted territory.
Having a career path that included being a professional vocalist and DJ performing internationally, to emergency medicine and film producing, her skill set has enabled her to handle the health communication channels during the greatest crisis of our democracy and this generation.
“I think what has really assisted, an advantage I’m very grateful for, is having the technical knowledge as this has allowed me to effectively link the technical aspects with communications.
“As such, I am able to move seamlessly between the technocrats, the politicians and fellow communicators, and I am learning more and more how to leverage off these relationships and link them.
“Covid also taught us the importance of multi-sectoral collaboration and I have had to learn to work with communicators and even technocrats in business, civil society, labour, traditional communities and cosmopolitan communities.
“I have been humbled by the incredible support I received from all quarters.
“The experience by and large, especially during COVID, has been collaborative, determined and goal orientated and this is largely fostered by a pandemic that has given us little room for pettiness and destructive competitiveness.”
Without placing boundaries on what Manzi would achieve next, she has a keen interest in biotechnology with a particular focus on anti-senescence - mitigating the process of ageing.
She attended conferences which looked specifically at the longevity dividend.
“This is a departure from the traditional thinking that ageing populations mean more expense for the government.
“Actually what was demonstrated is that ageing populations that live long and healthy lives have a positive multiplier effect on the economy and social, cultural, and environmental determinants.
“So I really hope that after I am done with communications I will have the opportunity to pursue this field of science which is fast expanding.
“I have already started to take small steps towards this next move, which I can’t wait to explore."
As for the movie industry, Manzi dreams of owning Africa's biggest animation studio.
“My favourite animation company, which I hope to emulate, is Studio Ghibli and my favourite film, of which I hope to do an Afrocentric remake someday, is Howl’s Moving Castle directed by Hayao Miyazaki, whom I believe is one of the greatest storytellers of our time.”