Lindiwe Mazibuko, Parliamentary Leader of the DA, was born in Swaziland in 1980 and then, with her South African parents, moved back to South Africa, Kwazulu Natal in 1986 where she was educated. After school she started a BA degree in music but dropped out after a year. Later, in 2006, she completed a BA in French, Classics, Media and Writing, and a post graduate degree in political communication, in 2007.
During the year that she completed her political communication course, she did research on different parties’ policies. She says: “I liked what I read and what I saw about the DA. I especially liked the attitude and ethos of the party leader Helen Zille, who had just been elected at that stage.” One thing led to another, not calculated. The opportunity as a researcher for the DA presented itself and its outlook happened to fit with her views at the time. The rest is history.
Today, at only 30 years of age she is already the leader of the main opposition party in parliament. It is a remarkable achievement and seems like destiny. But, Mazibuko is not a great believer in destiny. In her view, “people who do extraordinary things, their lives are a combination of talent and luck, together with their ability to capitalize on both at the right time”.
She also believes “in regretting things you’ve tried rather than not having tried at all”. Mazibuko has a strong desire to achieve, but not just for the sake of achieving. She takes on a specific goal for a particular reason. She stood for MP for a reason and the same goes for why she aimed and achieved the current position: “I believe in this party and we have to seize this particular moment we’re in, in South African history, in a very sure footed way, in order to make the strides we need to make electorally and become the party of government within the next decade”. With this vision she gives it her all. It is a very responsible position to have to strategically lead the DA caucus in parliament, in line with overall party strategy, as carved out by the national executive.
Deciding to run openly and publicly for the current position, against an internal colleague was a calculated decision. Mazibuko wanted to demonstrate the difference between the DA and their rivals; to “show the public what internal democracy in an alternative party looks like.” During this particular contestation there were challenges and even divisions, and it was tough, but overall the party got through it successfully.
Mazibuko’s challenge from here on forward will of course always be the managing of general public perceptions, including very trivial comments around her so called accent. Overall though it seems the public perception battle settled in positive territory. Her biggest leadership challenge will be, as she says, “to manage the internal outcome of the election”, fighting internal perceptions and attitudes, especially following her recent victory. Her attitude regarding this is “that’s my lot; it is a road I chose, and I am quite conscious of that responsibility”. She realizes fully that she has to sway the attitudes of those that did not support her towards trusting her and supporting the vision from here on forward.
When one achieves so well at such a young age everyone is not naturally happy for you, and supportive of you. The game of leadership, especially in politics is just not that simple, as ego’s and motives like seeking power, fame, influence and recognition is unfortunately the order of the day. Fortunately she realises that in politics “there is always somebody that believes they can do the job better than you”. Should Mazibuko manage this leadership hurdle successfully she will grow tremendously as a leader and person.
Though Mazibuko is young and without a doubt gifted in many ways, one can’t ignore the concern about whether she has gained sufficient experience to lead with confidence and credibility, based on past performance. Where did she cut her leadership teeth? Her response is: “The little known fact about MP’s is that they run constituencies somewhere in South Africa with constituent structures that consist of Councilors, MPL’s, volunteers, and so forth. You go there every Friday to Monday to lead. In addition we all have portfolios that we run”. She has also been in several leadership positions throughout her life, including as young as high school. She believes leadership is not something you learn, “it is something you experience either by doing it yourself or by watching other people do it well, or badly. And, it is a combination of having a vision of how things can or should be, and knowing in your mind how that can be implemented, adding to that the ability to inspire people to engage you and to work with you in doing the job.” She adds, “You have to be conscious of the needs of the people that you are leading, without being led by them. You must also be conscious of the strength that each person has and how this can be harnessed for the greater goal. In the DA you are responsible for taking talented people in a certain direction and encouraging them to use their talents to the benefit of the particular direction.”
Mazibuko is also very aware of the fact that the people she leads are leaders in their own right. In other words, she is a leader of leaders, and leading leaders takes incredible experience and confidence. She believes that she has learnt this in many different contexts, including as an MP and party spokesperson that formed part of the party executive. She continues to learn and feels all leaders continue to learn. Of course the jury is out on her leadership abilities for such a high profile position, and ultimately the verdict will be revealed on a very public platform. After engaging her one can’t help but feel she will succeed, and it is important that she does, for the good of the country as a whole.
A big challenge in leadership is holding people accountable, especially on the visible playing field of politics. Often, Mazibuko comments, “politicians fail to hold others accountable because they want to be re-elected. So they choose to run a moribund organisation for a trade-off for staying in charge of that moribund organisation. You call yourself a leader, but actually you are there at the behest of people who don’t actually want to be held accountable for what they do”. She believes this is the situation Pres Zuma has placed himself in, and that he seems to be quite content with it, “he doesn’t get anything done, but he gets to be the big dog anyway”, she says.
I want to use these statements to illustrate a leadership principle that is relevant to all leaders, especially in SA, and that someone like Nelson Mandela often demonstrated. Unfortunately the culture of opposition politics is not necessarily fertile territory for the application of this principle, though I believe Mazibuko will master it in due course.
In South Africa we have extraordinary leadership challenges and we pride ourselves on our diversity. To successfully engage at least these two dynamics, leaders must learn the art of avoiding ‘restrictive leadership’ by adopting its opposite, which is ‘seamless leadership’ – leading with a balanced big picture in mind, while, in an inclusive manner, confidently confronting barriers and boundaries to full potential of whatever entity (in this example South Africa). General all inclusive or exaggerated statements, such as the one made by Mazibuko about Pres Zuma that “he doesn’t get anything done” may be viewed as ‘restrictive leadership’, because it does not necessarily serve the balanced big picture, it does not demonstrate inclusivity, arouses unnecessary emotion and creates barriers rather than breaks it down. In the spirit of criticism from an opposition politician one understands where the comment comes from. But, one cannot but believe that someone with Mazibuko’s abilities can, even in her comments, demonstrate the spirit of seamless leadership rather than restrictive leadership. An opposition leader, driven by a motive of wanting the country to achieve its full potential, that boldly warns its rival against the signs of a moribund organisation, is within the realms of seamless leadership, as opposed to a general judgment that its leader gets nothing done, which is obviously not true.
Restrictive leadership also includes negative criticism only of one’s opposition, without ever proposing positive alternatives. Fortunately, under the leadership of Helen Zille the DA seems to be attempting to move away from the ‘negative criticism’ politics only, and this attitude was certainly adopted by Mazibuko, leading one to believe that she has it within herself to take opposition politics to another level, whatever this level will be, and when the time is right.
Back to accountability, Mazibuko’s point is well taken in that being comfortable with leading a moribund organisation will fall in the category of bad, short sighted and restrictive leadership, and a leader worth his or her salt will fight very hard to eradicate any barriers to full potential.
Where to next? She does not settle for the standard, pretend to be humble answer of “I will serve where my party wants me to”. For the next two and a half years she will focus on running the caucus successfully, but there after she would love to “one day be in government, cabinet and would even like to be President of SA. But those are very long term goals, which will only happen if I am successful at this particular task”.
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