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SA owes Mazibuko a thank you

The Sunday Times carried the headline “Shock as Mazibuko quits DA”. The print version of the paper carried the sub-heading “Move kept under wraps and party leader Zille told only later yesterday”. Beyond this the front page of the paper conveyed precious little information — half of the expanse of the page being taken up by Vodacom’s “Free 1 Gig” promotion. Meanwhile, posters lining the highway screamed “Top leader dumps DA”.

What message did these headlines convey? Lindiwe Mazibuko quitting the DA — for good, probably as a result of a fall-out with Helen Zille, probably as a result of a disagreement having something to do with race, probably as a result of Zille having a new “favourite” in Mmusi Maimane – another instalment in the tortured, dysfunctional love triangle of South African multiracial politics.

Or so it would seem. For those who actually bought the newspaper, or read the story online, now know that the story is about something uncontroversial and wonderful. A story about a young, talented female, black politician wishing to take time out of her political career to consolidate her knowledge and skills and being offered a place to study a master’s degree at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government. In her announcement to the Sunday Times she made it clear that she remained a DA supporter, that she intended to resume her political career after her studies, that her decision had been driven by the need to serve the DA better, that she had agonised over her decision because the DA meant everything to her and could be hurt in the process, and that her decision had nothing to do with her differences with Zille.

This was not newsworthy enough for the Sunday Times, so the story had to be finessed into a commodity more likely to spark the imagination of the average Sunday Times reader. Enter the language of failed romance: Mazibuko “dumps” the DA. Unsure whether the print copy would sell well enough if the actual story were to appear on the front page, a false front page bearing the giant Vodacom ad was added. And all sorts of subtle insinuations suggesting a fall-out with Zille, and a replacement by Maimane as the new “blue-eyed boy” seem to pepper the report.

Now of course this is to be expected. This is grist for the mill of media houses is it not? As my husband remarked sardonically, deadpan, as I angrily commented on the misleading headline. “But of course the Sunday Times is a tabloid … ”.

I am nevertheless angry. Not because I am necessarily a DA supporter. But angry because the headline could have read: “Mazibuko heads for Harvard”, or “Top DA leader takes time out to study”. I hear the journalists laughing hard at the local water hole. Such naïveté, they say, no-one wants news like that.

But who, collectively, is thinking about what news we want? I am not one for the sickly, forced “South Africa – the good news”. And, heaven forbid, I don’t want to put myself into bed with Jacob Zuma or whoever it was that complained not too long ago about the media not reporting enough good news.

This is not about good news. This is about how the South African media constitutes our politicians and the conditions of possibility they thereby establish for a politics of policies. Kenny Kunene, leader of the Patriotic Alliance, recently sparked the debate by urging South African voters to stop electing leaders based on personalities and rather focus on policies.

Well if voters must stop voting that way then media houses must stop perpetuating their false soap operas.

Mazibuko wants to be a politician of ideas. She wants to grapple with critical questions about South Africa’s future: How do we improve the lives of the poorest South Africans? How do we create jobs? How do we reduce inequality? (But please, don’t also think that you’ll find answers to these critical questions in a global narrative spun at Harvard!) She describes these aspirations and the difficult journey she traversed to reach a decision to take time out in an opinion piece in the same edition of the Sunday Times. Sadly this is tucked away on page 20.

Like Mazibuko perhaps, I have a dream of an election marked by substantive, rational debate, by creativity and inventiveness on offer for application to our most pressing social problems: How do we reduce the highest rate of inequality in the world? How do we redistribute wealth? How do we avert the continuing destruction of our incredible but finite ecological richness? How do we give our children a globally-competitive education? And so on … but this is not going to happen if we don’t start paying attention to what our politicians (or at least some of them) are actually saying, or give them the space to do this.

I think South Africa owes Mazibuko a “thank you”. For being brave enough to take a personal, principled decision in a very exposed position at a very crucial time. A thank you for creating the possibility, however small, of a politics of policies.