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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.