Behind the scenes with Ms Mazibuko

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

There’s been no shortage of discussion of Lindiwe Mazibuko in recent weeks – particularly the controversy about whether she was “made” or whether she “made” herself. I spent 30 months working with her; let me tell you what’s she truly like.

Recently, my former boss and Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko, announced that she would be going on sabbatical to further her studies at the Harvard Kennedy School of Governance. Although this announcement was met with some cynicism, it soon became clear that Lindiwe’s contribution to the South African political landscape was invaluable.

Astonishingly, a number of young people from different walks of life and across different political and ideological lines were all in agreement that her rise through the ranks of the Democratic Alliance had exposed space young people are now free to occupy in public life. It was a truly refreshing revelation seeing South Africans proud of one of their own and what they were able to achieve in such a short space of time.

Working in Lindiwe’s office for two-and-a-half years has been an incredible opportunity for me.

I will never forget the day I interviewed to be her spokesperson in November 2011. Fresh out of a Law of Contract exam, I had to do my interview telephonically, which was extremely intimidating. It was the day after Black Tuesday, when the Secrecy Bill had been passed by the National Assembly. Lindiwe asked me more about the Bill and how in its current form it would infringe on media freedoms. She also asked how I would have constructed a press statement on this issue. Having never seen, let alone written a press statement, I closed my eyes, and with great confidence, let words fly.

After a while, I heard chuckles on the other end of the line. It was a wrap. They would never hire a 22-year-old inexperienced student.

Much to my surprise, in the weeks to follow, I was bidding farewell to my family at the airport, headed to Cape Town. My mother handed me a neatly hand-written note about the dos and don’ts of professional and big city life.

I arrived obviously over-dressed, and my first day at the office was just weird. I was met by a guy who did not look much older than me, who introduced himself as Ms Mazibuko’s Chief of Staff. He was friendly but professional. The first task he gave me was to through annual reports. It might as well have been a physics exam in Greek. I wanted to go home.

Later that day I met Lindiwe in her office. I came in armed with a notepad, a pen and ready to eagerly scribble her every word. Instead, she sat me down on her couch, asked about my move to The Big City and offered to help in any way possible.

Two cups of tea later, we had discussed the world, politics, feminism and everything else that would inform conversation in many of our trips around the country.

That was the relationship Lindiwe had with her staff members - professional and compassionate.

Upon reflection, the past 30 months has been the most exciting, gruelling and exhilaratingly challenging time in my life.

I have been pushed to my absolute limits and impressively used this opportunity to learn as much as I can from some of the best people in South African politics.

I respected Lindiwe immensely and learnt a lot from her. Three moments in particular stand out for me during my time in her office. It was at these times when I was reminded once again why I had chosen to do what I do:

The first was the day we announced in a joint press conference with other opposition leaders that we would be moving a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma. Hours before this announcement, Lindiwe and the other party leaders sat in a meeting to discuss the move that was going to change the course of South African politics in Parliament. In a meeting with seasoned politicians who were all at least twice her age, with the exception of Prince Buthelezi, of course, Lindiwe took control of that meeting like the leader that she is, in the most assertive and graceful manner. She respectfully listened to the views of the different stakeholders but ultimately assumed the role of the leader of opposition - leading seven other parties in making a move that will claim its rightful place in our history books.

I was inspired.

The second was the day the DA congregated a 6,000-man march in the Johannesburg City centre to Luthuli House to highlight the plight of millions of unemployed South Africans. It wasn’t long after the march started that we received news that the SAPS were battling to keep armed ANC supporters from breaking through the barrier they had created.

It became clear to everyone that the situation would become violent. I distinctly remember looking down one of the sideway streets and seeing several ANC supporters carrying big rocks and pangas, coming straight at us. Security bellowed instructions for us to get off the truck and get into cars while the focus would be to get DA supporters to safety. Lindiwe refused to get off the truck. She started singing: Siyaya. Fear was thick in the air. Though no one would say, it was obvious that the crowd coming at us with weapons did not petrol bomb a large police contingent to offer us tea.

As the sea of yellow t-shirts got closer and closer, the crowd sang louder and louder. I got goose bumps watching it happen.

I remember thinking to myself: Now that is leadership!

And the most moving moment in my time in this office must have been the day of Tat’uMadiba’s memorial ceremony in Parliament.

While Lindiwe had made a point of never involving her family in her work, that day we saw something that we had never seen before. The night before the occasion, the speech she was to deliver in the House was done and dusted. I remember sitting in the public gallery and listening to her deliver a very sombre tribute to the man we had known as the Father of our Nation and having an absolute meltdown as she went off script.

I soon realised that she was delivering a personal tribute to Madiba remembering her own late father. For someone who seldom speaks about her family it was an absolute tear-jerker listening to her recount the day her family went to Virginia Airport to greet Madiba as he landed, shortly after he was released from prison. She recounted that was the very first time she had seen her father make a political statement when his raised his fist in the air to say Amandla to the man who had sacrificed so much for what we often take for granted today.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a colourful start to a career if it weren’t for downright weird headlines.

Sometime last year Lindiwe sat down for a profile interview with the Daily Voice. When she was asked about whether or not she had someone special in her life, she delivered her standard response, which was something along the lines of not discussing her personal life in the media. The reporter pressed on and asked whether she ever gets approached by men interested in her. She innocently answered that South Africans, men and women, are not a shy bunch and that she gets approached by many people, even on Twitter. The reporter relentlessly probed for the sake of clarity whether she also gets approached by women and Lindiwe candidly responded: Absolutely!

In typical Daily Voice fashion, the next day’s headline read: Lesbians love me! We have never let her forget that interview.

The past two years have been nothing short of amazing. It has been incredible honour working alongside a young woman of such stature and grace. I am yet to meet someone as passionate about this country and the DA as Lindiwe is.

She managed to achieve her goal of making Parliament the centre for public debate in an effort to ensure that the institution remained relevant to ordinary South Africans. I think this vision is the legacy that she has managed to leave behind even after two short years in office.

As I leave the office of the parliamentary leader to gain civil service experience in the Western Cape Government, I take with me invaluable experience in the world of political communication.

Moreover, I will take with me the knowledge that when you are a leader’s spokesperson, your role is not limited to managing their media profile. You know aren’t doing right if you don’t find yourself driving a getaway car from a violent protest or running around OR Tambo Airport looking for a tangle-teaser for that urgent press conference.

I wish Lindiwe all the very best in this new chapter of her life and I know one thing is for sure: Harvard was never ready! 

By Siviwe Gwarube

Source: Daily Maverick