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Mazibuko: W(h)ither the truth?

What is the “truth” regarding Lindiwe Mazibuko’s resignation as parliamentary leader? Last week I wrote a short opinion piece on the Sunday Times’ bombshell revelation “Shock as Mazibuko quits DA”, critiquing the paper for its misleading headline, articulating my splenetic disrelish of this new episode of “South African-politics-as-Days-of-Our-Lives”, and praising Mazibuko for her courageous decision to take time out to study and to thereby create a space, however small, for a “politics of policy” in SA.

Oh the perils of commenting on journalists and politicians in one piece! This week the GfK Trust in Professions Report was published, detailing the levels of trust in 30 different professions worldwide. About 28 000 interviews were carried out in 25 countries, including South Africa. The result: politicians and journalists ended up at the bottom of the pile as the LEAST TRUSTED professions, in the company of taxi drivers and insurance agents (lawyers were not far from the bottom either). Caveat, therefore, anyone who dares to behold this murky realm!

As the week unfolded other dimensions of the story have come to light (or perhaps, I should say, have slithered out of the darkness). The following day Gareth van Onselen’s caustic column on Helen Zille’s leadership emerged in the Business Day under the heading “The real reasons Mazibuko left the DA parliamentary leadership”.

Then there was Beeld’s report of Zille saying Harvard was Mazibuko’s “Plan B” and that she would not have been re-elected as the DA’s caucus leader. The Sunday Times, relying on leaks from a DA federal executive (Fedex) meeting published a lead story titled “Mazibuko nothing without me – Zille”, in which Zille is depicted as a harpy, somewhat-out-of-control leader, undermining her former protégé with claims of how she had “made” and “saved” her. Responding first on Twitter and then in a piece published on the DA’s website entitled “The abuse of media to drive internal agendas in the DA”.

Zille rebutted the claims in the Sunday Times article, alleging they were concocted by twisting selected leaks from the Fedex meeting. She then “set out the facts” of what was, and was not said at the meeting, which she characterised as “a full, open, frank discussion among adults seeking to deal with a complex situation and move forward” (and also, ostensibly, protected by the requirement of confidentiality). Her presentation of the “facts” reveals a more complex, less harmonious relationship between herself and Mazibuko than Mazibuko’s communication with the media last Sunday lets on, characterised as the latter is by various declarations of faith, both to the DA and to Zille as “her leader”.

In particular, Zille admits to saying that Mazibuko constructed a “Berlin wall” after she was elected as parliamentary leader and ignored Zille’s advice. In his Business Day piece, however, Van Onselen had reported that Mazibuko’s staff were systematically isolated and marginalised within the party, among other allegations of the “poisonous environment” prevailing within the DA. Zille, on the other hand, noted that during this past week one of Lindiwe’s closest confidantes had been seen briefing Van Onselen. And so the drama continues. I have no hidden agendas, no stake in the DA’s succession. I am simply a somewhat non-descript academic bored and irritated with the political sideshows that distract us from important questions.

But, then again, perhaps there are important, unaddressed, unarticulated questions boiling beneath all of this. Questions such as: How can white, older leaders nurture younger black ones without this being seeing as “window-dressing”? What kinds of pressures are placed upon young black leaders in traditionally “white” parties both from within and outside the party? Do they have the latitude to make mistakes without being branded incompetent? What even counts as a mistake? How is inter-racial and inter-generational advice given, how is it received? How much of all of this is framed by our longstanding apartheid baggage? What kind of media reporting do we need to address these issues constructively?

When I look at Helen and Lindiwe I see two intelligent, powerful women, both of whom care a great deal about the DA and South Africa. I imagine that the dynamics of their high-pressure relationship is far more complex, far more nuanced, far more human and ambiguous than what the media can or is willing to convey.

But whatever the “truth” may be, my initial critique sticks: This is about the media commodification of SA politics and how this negatively frames the conditions of possibility for a politics of policies. This soap opera discourse of South African politics both reflects and constitutes, establishing a “reality” that can shape motivations, intentions, actions. It has real consequences.


  • Tracy Humby is passionate about exploring the multiple intersections of environmental and social justice. Weary of sustainability-talk, wary of sufficiency she wonders whether sacrifice is the better metaphor to capture the transformations needed in an age of massive ecological degradation. But with increasing global inequality, who and what will be sacrificed? She is an associate professor of law at the University of the Witwatersrand, a mother and a lover of poetry, art and music. She has degrees in music, law and the humanities.


  1. Maesela Maesela 19 May 2014

    The problem with the Deomcratic Alliance (DA) and in particular Helen Zille is their obsession to keep everything that happens in the DA a secret. All organisations have internal conflicts, which are necessary for an organisation to grow and an evolution of new Ideas. For a long time, they have pretended that they were a perfect political party. They should take this as a test not a crisis.

  2. Gary Smith Gary Smith 20 May 2014

    Wouldn’t it be good if these “two intelligent, powerful women, both of whom care a great deal about the DA and South Africa” were to get together and ‘spill the true beans’ on this furore?

  3. Suntosh Suntosh 20 May 2014

    Nice piece. The commodification of soapie politics by the media really dumbs down the quality of our public sphere. I’m beginning to feel like the Sunday Times thinks its readers are stupid! Of course we know they’re sensationalizing a much more nuanced story.

    The postmodern truth is, there isn’t one.

  4. JohnbPatson JohnbPatson 20 May 2014

    I long ago learnt that when quitting a job, even an underpaid, undervalued job with terrible bosses, that it is better to make the pretence of leaving gracefully. Write the nice letter with syrupy phases, and grin and bare the warm wine and cheese on a stick leaving do. It pays.
    Those who stomp out and slam the door, or who (heaven forbid) gain momentary pleasure by telling the bosses what they really think, find out the hard way that the international bosses network means they never prosper.

  5. Conrad Conrad 20 May 2014

    Excellent piece.

  6. Rory Short Rory Short 20 May 2014

    I agree with you the media’s taken on politics is no actual use to South Africa. We need policy debates not personality hates.

  7. ian shaw ian shaw 21 May 2014

    The serious difference between Zille and Mazibuko was their diverging assessment of race-based BEE policies. The DA always stood against that while Mazibuko tended to rather voice the ANC’s own line of thinking. If an official or member of a party disagrees with party policy such a person has always been demoted or expelled. This happened in the ANC (Malema) too. According to this view, If you disagree with basic party policy, then you should not be a member of the party. Another view is that a disagreeing party member should try to persuade the party to change its basic policies. In my view, these contradictions mirror the basic fault of any party system.

  8. Dimi Dimi 22 May 2014

    Drama, always drama.

  9. Lindsay Lindsay 22 May 2014

    the “soap opera discourse of SA politics”! yes! that’s exactly what it is! and in the absence of alternative discourses, and despite often knowing better, we get caught up/ addicted to the narratives.
    Thanks for your piece!

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