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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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  1. fiona hoareau fiona hoareau 26 May 2014

    Wonder where Mamphela fits in here?Your last article slated her?A week or is it a day in politics is a long time.Proudly one of the 0.28% of voters who just want a person of integrity to stand up and do what they believe in without thoughts of career paths with their every move.

  2. Haiwa Tigere Haiwa Tigere 27 May 2014

    For hundreds of years race was the elephant in the room. It has not left and is not leaving any time soon despite the machinations of some liberals trying to paper over it.
    If Mazibuko was white Zille would not have dared to come out with the claptrap she did the other weekend reducing the former to a mere vessel or conduit for her ideas.

    It has destroyed Mazibukos credibility completely made her a fool and it will take much more than a year at Harvard to even try to remedy the damage
    Why would Zille co-opt Mazibuko if she was clueless. Not based on race you think?If she was so useless was she not there to give the impression of a powerful black woman yet she was just a puppet on a string.When she belatedly woke up to this fact and started to feed her ideas into the plot she realised she had to jump before she was pushed. Why did Zille not put a white woman into Mazibukos position?Because the race demographics would not allow it.

    Please dont try to put the wool over peoples eyes. Race is the centre of this saga. Its why a cluelesss(according to Zille) woman was thrown into the deep end.
    Maybe Malema was right after all. Mazibuko was there to make the tea!!!!

  3. kubo kubo 27 May 2014

    The truth hurts. Racism is like a blindspot to non blacks. Its there but you cant see it on the mirror. Nice try Kameel and Daniel but Just like HZ you have been blindsided by prejudices in your sub conscious mind. These prejudices against non whites are inculcated in “private” conversations, jokes, drunken stupors and whispers around dinner tables.

  4. Zeph Zeph 27 May 2014

    In RSA we reduce everything to race. Why? Because we are lazy and it is the easiest way to get what we want. Just like a kid throwing a tantrum!
    I say: Let them shriek!

  5. What Rubbish What Rubbish 27 May 2014

    If Lindwiwe was white, or Zille black, would this even have been a story? Easy to see racism everywhere.

    The only racial element here is that a very young and inexperienced Lindiwe was projected into the limelight ahead of time – and that mostly because of race. In reality she should have grown steadily through the ranks.

    When Zuma gave Julius a klap what was that. Of course in the ANC it is the youth that “make” their leaders, not the other way round.

  6. Wayne Alexander Wayne Alexander 27 May 2014

    I agree with Kameel and Co that South Africans miss nuances and depth in analysis. Its easy to just pick up the spectacles with race tinted glass … its easy its what we have been doing since the dawn of Apartheid … its our achilles heel … our fall back position … in fact we so easily perpetuate apartheid in our viewing of every situation that we often miss the point. Do black mentors respond differently to white mentors when working with young talent? IS the lack of pigmentation or oversupply have an impact on how we respond to people in positions of power that mentors hold? i doubt it … I think the concept of it being strucutural and part of the subconcious psyche is convenient and easy to maintain a non questioning of the easy race analysis … yes subconciously blacks have internalised inferiority and whites the opposite… ultimately that means by my pigmentation i remain a victim … this is an idea consciously that i cannot support …

  7. Joe Soap Joe Soap 27 May 2014

    For goodness sake – is there no end to this rubbish? Why does everybody focus on race whenever the DA is in the spotlight? The DA is the most racially diverse party in our country. It is the home of those who are big enough to see beyond the day to day race issues that so many other South Africans are still so obsessed with. The DA is a place of tolerance and respect for each other. Helen Zille has presided over the DA during a period of dramatic growth. Why do so many people want to demonize her? Maybe her time has come and she has contributed as much as she has to offer. I, for one, will be very sad to see her go. I doubt if there is anybody else in the current DA line-up who could deliver as much for the party as Helen Zille has done. Remember that even the DA can be subject to greedy, grubby little politicians who are only interested in furthering their own respective agendas. Who will the DA push forward in her place? Be careful what you wish for….. you may just get it!

  8. Frank Lee Frank Lee 27 May 2014

    In my opinion, the “racism blindspot” that you refer to lies in this strange belief that blacks can’t be racist, when every policy and action of our government is laced with racial legislation (usually through its euphemism: transformation).

    You believe that non-blacks have a “race blindspot, because you believe that blacks are the god appointed arbiters of who is being racist.

    Check out your eyes for splinters.

  9. RollPlayer RollPlayer 27 May 2014

    @Kubo: You respond with a combination of an assertion and a lie that could never be substantiated. If these are private whites-only conversations, how could you know about their content or, especially, know for certain that every single white person indulges in such conduct, whispered, drunk or otherwise?

    You’re so busy pointing out blind spots that you imagine that you can prove it by asserting a set of sweeping generalisations about white people as fact. I’m all for having an honest conversation about race, but it’s doubtful that honesty is what you’re after.

    Every party in the world where some form of democracy operates is involved in recruiting members and encouraging them to be involved in the work of the party. Every party chooses people who look like they’ve got what it takes and brings them through the ranks. People have to be taught about the rough and tumble reality of politics, how parliament works, effective debating, smart political strategies and the like.

    A few months ago the ANC even held a political education school.

    Every leader of every party owes his or her position to what the party and its leaders did for them in teaching them and in creating opportunities for them.

    Pointing out that someone would not have achieved a position without mentoring is not racist, it’s a statement of the obvious. But this being SA, when it comes to race, stating the obvious is now considered racist by definition.

  10. Conrad Conrad 27 May 2014

    The degree to which so many of us blithely infer motives (racism, dominance, sexism, whatever) or assert unknowables (such as that Zille would not have if… etc) continues to amaze me. Where is the critical thinking?

  11. BrandyBalls BrandyBalls 27 May 2014

    Haiwa and Kubo: Stop reading racism where none/little exists. To assume you know more of a person’s subconcious mind than they themselves do, using assumptions from third-hand media gossip, is absurd. Who do you think you are? David Blaine?

    The race card is being pulled too easily these days. Save it for when a real injustice happens.
    I don’t understand the new fad that when someone non-black provides a logical, intelligent argument on a complex matter, they’re labelled as subconciously racist. People who argue that point are showing more about their own racist tendencies than the people they’re lambasting. Is there maybe a fear that without being able to blame racism, you will have to confront your own shortcomings as a person outside of the colour of your skin? Without the race card, what will you hide behind when things don’t go your way?

    Saying that Lindiwe was there to make the tea is undermining the very person you’re trying to uphold, by the way. She is far above the belittling that black people themselves have hurled at her in the name of misguided defence.

    We need more articles like this. Ones that take in all the facts and complexities of human relations. There is more to us than the colour of our skin. It’s a factor, yes, but not the be all and end all.

  12. Kwane Kwane 27 May 2014

    Robert Sobukwe : “The structure of the body of man provides evidence to prove the biological unity of the human species. All scientists agree that there is no “race” that is superior to another, and there is no “race” that is inferior to others. The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race. In our vocabulary therefore, the word “race”, as applied to man, has no plural form.”

    Sobukwe’s assertion ousts the view of Pillay without further ado.

  13. Rory Short Rory Short 27 May 2014

    I agree with the two of you, reducing issues to race in this case is simplistic in the extreme and smacks of opportunism.

  14. Cam Cameron Cam Cameron 28 May 2014

    Pillay wants white mentors to actually believe that their mentorship makes no difference to their black mentees who are actually so smart they rise to the top in spite of (not because of) white mentorship.

    But, though their best efforts only range from complete uselessness to ill-guided destructiveness, these white mentors ought nvertheless not just walk away from this duty of mentorship because that would be seen as racist rejection and abandonment.

    Damned if they do; damned if they don’t. Only happens if you’re white.

  15. Joe Malapela Joe Malapela 28 May 2014

    Dear Kameel and Dan,

    You may try to put a spin and attempt to protect Helen Zille as much as you like, but the truth is that Helen Zille’s atturances and comments were “racist” and insulting to Lindiwe. How dare she say she made Lindiwe? This is tantumount to belittling Lindiwe’s parents.

    *It is laughable for you two to even suggest that Helen Zille would even think that she and Lindiwe are ” equally powerful”. It is fair to conclude from what she said that she regards herself as “more powerful”. According to her she is the creator and Lindiwe is the object of Helen’s creation – the two cannot be seen as “equal”.

    * You two may believe what you want regarding this matter but those of us who have lived the greater part of our lives under apartheid and among white liberals like Helen, know that this issue is largely race related.

    Therefore, I believe what Verashni Pillay wrote regarding this matter. You two are way off the mark!!

  16. Rameus Rameus 28 May 2014

    What a load of hogwash! Verashini was spot on the mark in her analysis. Kameel and Dan, are you even South African? If not, you need to educate yourselves on South African politics asap. Stop trying to ‘liberate’ our minds from race-based politics (as it is termed by guilty white South Africans trying to rid themselves of their guilt), and instead understand that race-based politics is here to stay for the next 50 years. This is because race is the basis of our inequality, and our inequality is the root of our poverty! Until poverty is eradicated (by ALL South Africans, not the government) then race is going to be the central argument. Deal with it, and wake up to what Africa is saying!

    I for one am thoroughly enjoying watching the DA mature, because all their skeletons are being unearthed. And secondly, Zille has clearly lost the plot and the power has gone straight to her head, exactly what the DA accuses other politicians of being guilty of. Bravo DA…Enter the rise of Maimane…

  17. kubo kubo 29 May 2014

    It seems as if I have hit a raw nerve. guys you need healing, Maybe you should start chatting to your tea ladies and garden boys about church and relatives and what her dreams are for her kids instead of “knowing all” and complaining about “black racism”. Its like trying to be build a non sequitur that Kasrils and Slovo and Ruth First are “antisemitic”.

  18. The Creator The Creator 29 May 2014

    Yes, for obviously a historically white party would not put an inexperienced black person in a prominent position in order to appeal to black people (and that has nothing to do with race), and certainly the white boss of that party abusing the black person when she departed would have nothing to do with their race.

    In fact, nothing has anything to do with race unless a white person says it does, in which case it is unquestionable and only racists question the white person’s declaration.

  19. Charlotte Charlotte 30 May 2014

    @ Joe Malapela… just to put the reciord straight ….
    Helen Zille never said she “made Lindiwe” or that “Lindiwe was the object of her creation.” Where did you get that skewed information?
    And “Helen Zille belittled Lindiwe’s parents” – Now that is laughable!

  20. Zeph Zeph 30 May 2014

    And the The Creator hold judgement over all, neh?

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