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Reducing Zille-Mazibuko saga to race a dangerous game

By Kameel Premhid and Dan de Kadt

In a recent article for the Mail & Guardian, Verashni Pillay, an associate editor, argues that “white mentors need a wake-up call”. Her central thesis is that white mentors are prone to feeling a sense of ownership over their “black protégés” and that they struggle to cope when their protégés exercise independence and break away. Anchoring the wider discussion on the recent, supposedly spectacular, fallout between Helen Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko, Pillay paints a disturbing picture of mentorship in both South Africa at large, and the DA in particular.

Yet on closer inspection the article appears heavily reliant on assertion. This undermines the article itself, how it is written, and the value of its analysis, rather than the issue that Pillay raises. We have no doubt that many mentees struggle with breaking away from their mentors. We think that this could be particularly complicated in cases of white mentors and black mentees. But unlike Pillay we do not believe that this is solely a race issue in South Africa. Pillay’s over eagerness to make broad comments on the state of race relations in (corporate and political) South Africa betrays the nuance required for her contribution to have real value. Her essay is at best unhelpful, and at worst destructive.

Nowhere does Pillay properly evaluate the nature of the relationships that mentors and their mentees have. No analysis is offered of how feelings of indebtedness, personal growth, conflict, and power imbalances are navigated, nor how race may further complicate these feelings and processes. No references are made to the substantial literatures in economics, psychology, and sociology that explore these issues. Instead Pillay presents as evidence two quotations, one from an attorney and one from a political analyst, and a series of assertions and cherry-picked examples.

Yet the facts upon which her assertions are based are heavily disputed. While her article is an op-ed, Pillay’s under-emphasis of this seems deliberate. By not engaging with Zille’s clarification she furthers her chosen narrative: Zille is guilty of white supremacy and, faced with this reality, becomes hypersensitive and unnecessarily defensive. While we may agree that Mazibuko’s resignation was poorly handled by Zille and the DA, and may have revealed a very ugly side to the party, it bears noting that the record upon which Pillay’s analysis is based was leaked by an anonymous source. In the absence of context and without corroboration the merit of this evidence is disputable and has not been corroborated. As one of us has written elsewhere, the fact that this may be part of a concerted effort to get rid of Zille receives no mention from Pillay. Instead she is eager to accept disputed facts and use them to draw questionable conclusions.

In drawing these questionable conclusions Pillay engages in a form of racial reductionism. Not only does she presume to speak on behalf of all black voters (“It came across as incredibly condescending to black voters that DA party leader Helen Zille could think she was responsible for the success of a black person”), she reduces Zille and Mazibuko to their races, and proceeds to engage in troublesome racial stereotyping. Her automatic reductionism of Zille and Mazibuko’s personal conflict to a manifestation of a broader black/white issues is unjustified, overstated, and unfair. No evidence is brought to bear on the claim. No attention is given to other factors that may have played into their dynamic — for instance the fact that this was also a clash of two powerful women in a country still dominated politically, socially, and economically by men. Indeed, by grossly reducing Zille and Mazibuko to racial stereotypes Pillay ignores everything else about them as people — gender, class, personality, preferences. Finally, the fact that she does not acknowledge the reverse to be true — that black mentors can be guilty of the same “bad” behaviour towards white (and black) mentees, shows much about how her personal opinions skew her analysis. Reducing complicated issues to race is a dangerous game, one which sadly seems to be becoming more popular.

While we have no doubt that the phenomenon to which Pillay speaks is a problem, there are many other examples where mentors and mentees clash. We think that race may be a factor but is not the only factor. We also think that all races are capable of this bad behaviour, and the opposite, not because of their race, per se, but because of the type of relationship on which Pillay is commenting. We believe that had Pillay done more to maintain a balanced focus of this unfortunate affair, her analysis would have amounted to more than the poor racial prejudices she inadvertently peddles.

Kameel Premhid is reading for an MPhil in international relations at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and Daniel de Kadt is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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