The political mills grind exceedingly small

2011-10-29 00:00

THE contrast could not be starker. While the African National Congress ponders putting their Young Turk up for adoption or yet again smacking his wrist and banishing him to the naughty corner, the opposition elected theirs as parliamentary leader.

The Democratic Alliance’s Lindiwe Mazibuko this weekly easily ousted her pale-male predecessor, Athol Trollip. It was a dramatic, necessary, but potentially risky move by the DA caucus.

The 31-year-old Mazibuko, protégé of party leader Helen Zille, was elected MP in 2009 and joined the DA only five years ago. That’s as long as she has been active in politics, her interest whetted by an honours dissertation on Zille.

The campaign to oust Trollip from the post of leader of the opposition highlights another DA difference from the ANC.

In the governing party, naked political ambition is frowned upon as conduct unbecoming the loyal cadre.

Whatever secret back-stabbing takes place, ambitions must remain cloaked from the public until the ANC faithful deliver the summons for deployment. Even a whiff of ambition can mean exclusion from the inner circle, as Jacob Zuma can attest.

In contrast, Mazibuko ran a slick campaign, employing a public relations agency to lobby her caucus colleagues for their votes. She kicked off at a press conference where she introduced her backers — both black and white, both leftist and conservative — and in the following weeks the media was drip-fed a steady stream of glowing collegial endorsements, timed to create the impression of a tidal wave of support.

The outgunned Trollip camp objected in vain that a public campaign would “create divisions” in the party, incidentally a line much favoured by ANC incumbents under similar siege. At a council meeting presided over by Wilmot James, a Mazibuko backer, the DA ruled that she had done nothing improper and it seems that the obvious question — who was funding her campaign — was never asked.

Zille stood theoretically aloof from the fray, though she spoke coyly to the New Age on the need for a “generational mix” in the leadership and of “infusing new blood” as the way forward. Provincial leaders and party representatives apparently felt less constrained and the sometimes embarrassingly treacly endorsements of Mazibuko kept flowing.

Dene Smuts, the DA’s shadow Justice minister, was one of the few to publicly support Trollip in what was clearly a losing battle. The pugnacious Smuts, not one to trim her sails to prevailing winds, cheekily appropriated Zille’s favourite imagery of the DA growing its own forest of future black leaders.

“This is a contest between an untested sapling from the grow-your-own-timber nursery against a tree that has shown it does not bend,” growled Smuts.

The parliamentary leadership should not be seen as a “transformation test” for the DA, since there are “far stronger” black leaders than Mazibuko.

Another MP, black, earned Zille’s ire when he used the term “window dressing” to describe Mazibuko’s candidacy.

Zille was obviously delighted when Mazibuko won.

This is “the dawn of a new era”, the DA has taken “a big step into the future”, and has “crossed the first Rubicon”.

Politicians should be wary of fluvial allusions. Rubicon crossing has an unhappy history in South Africa, with former president PW Botha drowning, metaphorically speaking, during his infamous failed crossing.

Whatever the gloss put on it — necessity is often expediently recast as an act of virtue in politics — the DA has done no more than was necessary. It needs credible black leaders and the delay in achieving this, citing an aversion to “window dressing”, cost it electorally.

Now the political mill looms.

It will test whether Mazibuko is ironwood or pine.

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