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“Excuse me, what happened to you? I miss you!”
The intervention from a passer-by to Lindiwe Mazibuko spoke volumes – as did the patience and grace with which she dealt with the interruption. It’s likely that she has had plenty of practice. Although she’s been away from frontline politics in South Africa for a couple of years, she had previously attained countrywide prominence on the back of a meteoric political rise, culminating in a role as opposition leader in parliament, aged just 31.
Now, fresh from studying for a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) at Harvard’s Kennedy School, she is back in South Africa and fired by her determination to help overcome the barriers which prevent more young people from entering politics and public life. “It’s not about fetishising youth – they can be populist or repressive just as much as their elders – but really it is about diversity and why it is always an advantage,” she says. “Diversity always improves decision-making in every facet of life, and that includes government and democracy.”
Starting young – and then some
Born to South African parents, Mazibuko spent the first six years of her life in Swaziland before the family returned to South Africa in the midst of apartheid and a government-imposed state of emergency. Six years later, tragedy struck when her father was gunned down in front of her mother – “it was an assassination and they never found the two teenagers who did it” – and Mazibuko was forced to confront the fact “that the world can be a terrible and unsafe place”.
The trauma of losing her father in such circumstances, as well as the harsh reality of life in a township, made a lasting impression, one that has never left her. She did, however, leave the country for a period, journeying north to the UK for a couple of years to study music. She then returned home to complete her studies, including a postgraduate degree in political communication. “I was in the UK during 9/11, and when I returned I felt that I had been something of an absentee member of a South African society that was fractured and hadn’t quite found its way,” she recalls. “So I wanted to get involved in politics or government.”
She did so by becoming a parliamentary researcher for the opposition Democratic Alliance. “I had found enough about their liberal democratic policy that I liked, and I thought there might be an opportunity to work with this organisation and help them find their natural voice,” she recalls. “I went in for the interview, which the party CEO happened to be present for as someone was away that day. He asked why I had applied, even though I didn’t support the party. But I said I had something to offer and wanted to work for the greater good, so I wanted to come and help.”
Two months into the job and the illness of a party spokesman presented an opportunity for early promotion – one she grabbed with both hands. The ascent continued with her election to parliament in the 2009 general election and her continued willingness to seize any opportunity. “I spent two-and-a-half years doing late night community radio interviews that frontbench MPs would reject,” she says. “So I did all the work no one wanted to do, but at the same time I was learning how to communicate, understand the full slate of party policy and the complexity of defending my colleagues’ mistakes – even when I had no part in making them – and this all helped raise my national profile.”
Coming to a crossroads
The rapid progression was to continue with a new role as opposition leader in parliament. It was a time of highs and lows. “The government saw we were going to use every parliamentary means to make the president sweat at every appearance and make accountability real,” she explains.
“Previously, everyone had been lounging around on the soft benches and not putting skin in the game, but as a consequence of our more active approach I started to get threats and personal attacks; my hair, my clothing, my body weight – all seemed fair game. So it was a really hard three years I spent in office, but it was also exhilarating as we were finally able to change the direction of the debate. Whenever I was asked on television something like whether my skirt was too short that day, I was able to pivot the debate to something about gender equality and how we see the role of young black women in South Africa.”
Mazibuko, though, was not wedded to life on the front bench. At the same time, she had been encouraged to apply for an MPA at the Kennedy School. “I was accepted and had the chance to pivot away from politics, renew myself, review my career and think about what I wanted to do and how I could make a difference in other ways. And so I left politics. I went to Harvard for two years and had an incredible experience.”
Returning home to a new mission
Today, Mazibuko is back in South Africa with a contract to write a book about why the country – and continent – needs a new cohort of young leaders who aren’t “held to ransom” by an older generation. Although she has no plans to return to politics just yet – and indeed intends to work abroad for a while – she is laying the groundwork for a new organisation, one that can identify young leaders and help equip them for jobs in public life – either in government or party politics.
It seems a highly pertinent assignment. After all, she had the passion, education and talent, yet still found the system to be difficult to navigate. Is there not a fear that her own experiences will put off other young people from following in her footsteps?
“That’s why I want to help build an army of young public servants in South Africa and the continent,” she replies, smiling. “My book is about why there is such a shortage of young people in public service when we are such a young country and in such a young continent, and what cultural and systemic changes we need to make in order to reverse these numbers. It started off as a kind of rant about how we depend on heroes from the liberation struggle to rescue us from our problems, but then I started to think about what programmes exist to help talented people into the public sector, or enable candidates with alternative backgrounds or viewpoints to run for office with the necessary support and resources to sustain them once they are elected. This is what I am interested in now – rather than a return to the political frontline.”
She goes on to say that she wants her new project to be open to all and free of the partisanship that can often hold back faster progress. “The crucial thing is it has to be apolitical,” she says. “I’m not looking to found a political party or even a movement. It is about building systems, the purpose of which is to nurture a growing cohort of young African leaders of diverse background, gender and age, but specifically young leaders who can reckon with the realities of the 21st century and won’t, for example, make foreign policy on the back of old disillusionments with the role of agencies like the CIA, which interfered in African politics in the 1970s. I just believe there are large numbers of young people out there who would love to run for office but just don’t know where to start – and this is where I want to be: helping them move on up.”
Although Mazibuko would admit that the challenges which lie scattered across the political terrain – entrenched leaders, corruption and cronyism to name but three – may prevent her aspirations from taking root, her passion, drive and fluency are palpable, and certainly are enough to suggest that the odds should lie in her favour. “I’m an idealist at heart,” she says proudly. “And when you’re in politics you get bitten by the impact bug. You write a press statement, send it out into the world and people start debating it. So, suddenly you’re impacting public debate. It’s addictive to be a part of the solution.”
It’s an addiction that Mazibuko doesn’t appear likely to kick any time soon. And for that, Africa, and its citizens young and old, should be profoundly grateful. Aged just 37, she has already achieved a great deal – it will be fascinating to see what happens next.
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