30 Inspiring Drum Women | Don’t overmentor women, give them access to networks, says Lindiwe Mazibuko

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Lindiwe Mazibuko, the co-founder and CEO of Futurelect, says she was inspired to start this organisation after joining the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders® programme.
Lindiwe Mazibuko, the co-founder and CEO of Futurelect, says she was inspired to start this organisation after joining the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders® programme.
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She was one of the youngest MPs when, at the age of 31, she was appointed parliamentary leader of the opposition.

Not only did this accomplishment make her the first black woman to be elected to the post of leader of the opposition in the National Assembly in SA, but it hurtled her to the kind of fame, scrutiny and public ridicule that very few people of that age can bear.

Lindiwe Mazibuko remembers that period, over a decade ago, as being quite a lonely time – being one of “the first to” or “the only one to”.

“It’s a lonely thing to be, to be the only person who,” she pauses.

Then she adds, “I mean, I remember the first time I gave a speech on an iPad in parliament. They (iPads) had just been launched and various whips rose and gave points of order, saying, ‘This is not an acceptable thing to do in the House’; ‘You’re not allowed electric devices at the podium.’

“I was the first person to give a speech in parliament with my iPad, and it caused a ruckus! Now there’s jokes about the president’s iPad, like, out on the streets. 

“I was alone – I was the fourth youngest MP at the time – and any person my age would’ve done exactly the same thing. 

“It’s lonely having ideas and being the only one to whom they make sense because everybody else is two generations ahead of you. It’s also just dysfunctional because diversity leads to great leadership.”

Lindiwe makes this example to make the bigger point that in her break from politics her focus, as co-founder and CEO of Futurelect, is now on supporting young and women leaders in the SADC region in meaningful ways so that they don’t have to experience the loneliness of being the first; among the few represented; youngest; or only one in their demographic to achieve particular accomplishments in public service or politics – spaces which are still largely male and older.

“The bell curve in politics today is that if you are 40-something you’re on the lower end. And if you’re 70- or 80-something, you’re on the higher end. 

“And the middle – the rump of the bell curve – is like 50 to 70 years old. We are trying to move that rump closer to 30, 40 years old.”

She was a democrat and fully believed in the visions that her party, the Democratic Alliance, said it stood for. But being within, and a leader, kept her in a bubble where she was not exposed to contesting ideas and thinking that would challenge her own beliefs without polarising. 

“That’s a real cornerstone of what we do (in Futurelect). I spent a lot of time in a political bubble, you know, where everyone said the same thing and chants the same chants and wears the same colours and calls each other ‘Democrat’."

“And you almost stop questioning these things over time and, as soon as you leave, you’re, like, ‘Hang on. I’ve been cut off from a whole block of opinion which could influence me and change my mind on certain issues but, also, could help me sharpen my views in a non-combative way'.”

Training leaders to think outside these bubbles is one of the ways that we can elevate our politics, says the Harvard University alum. 

Being unable to engage with ideas or beliefs that challenge our own political ideologies or biases is a risk that any aspirant politician needs to guard against, believes the co-founder and CEO of Futurelect, an Apolitical Academy that trains and supports young people from ages 18-45 who want to run for public office but just don’t have the networks, political education or guidance that youths who got into politics from an early age do.

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The amount of talent in this country is staggering, Lindiwe tells Drum. “My only despair is the barriers to entry.” Not many people have access to the kind of networks who can support them as leaders in politics and government, which is why she started Futurelect, she says.

She’d have to resign from her non-partisan, non-profit venture if she decided to run for political office herself,  Lindiwe replies when asked about her political aspirations, emphasising that the work she does now and her own political beliefs or ambitions are worlds apart.

“It’s a leadership programme. We don’t teach ideology or policy or anything like that. We teach personal leadership development, we do skills building for political leadership, and political systems.”

The St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls alumnus resigned from her position as a member of the official opposition in 2014.

“I took the decision in September (2013) when, during a visit to Yale University with others pursuing high-profile careers, the value of such a break became clear to me. I had considered it before, and I believe the decision is the right thing at the right time for the DA and for me because it will improve what I can offer the DA politically,” Lindiwe said at the time. 

Mmusi Maimane,Futurelect,Mamphela Ramphele,Lindiwe
DA leader Helen Zille with DA Gauteng Premier Candidate Mmusi Maimane and Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko in Cape Town ahead of the 7 May 2014 general elections.

She and party leader Hellen Zille announced she was going to further her studies at Harvard University soon after rumours had emerged that Mmusi Maimane would be replacing Lindiwe after she and Zille publicly disagreed over the DA parliamentary caucus’s handling of employment equity legislation.

Lindiwe says she hasn’t lost her personal appetite for politics, so running for public office again isn’t totally out of the question for her. She’s just consumed with the current work of training and supporting a new generation of public leaders in Africa. And this, she emphasises, is her greatest accomplishment – greater than being elected parliamentary leader in 2011 by her peers in the DA’s 83-person caucus, making her the party’s youngest.

“My demographics are what they are. I don’t wake up one day a woman, the other, black. I just am me. 

“It’s important to acknowledge and appreciate when you’re the first of something and what it will mean for those who come next, which I do,” she concedes.

“But I don’t think that’s my greatest accomplishment. I think the work I’m doing now is my greatest accomplishment because, although I appreciate how incredibly hard that work was, how hard the election was, the mandate was, and how important it was, the work that I am doing now of supporting other leaders is bigger than myself. It’s about multiplying.

“If ever we can make the road smoother, easier, for the people who come after us, in politics in my case – but in any industry or sector that we work in – I think that’s incredibly important work.”

“So I think the most important work I’ve ever done is taking my experiences in political leadership and sharing them with other young women so that they can, frankly, go further, faster and more easily and have a less difficult time of it in a space that’s incredibly sexist towards women.”

She is constantly awed by the creativity and leadership potential she sees in the young people she supports through Futurelect, but she doesn’t want to use the word mentor, saying she doesn’t want to ever call herself someone’s mentor as it reminds her of the time when “someone famously once claimed to have made me”.

Mmusi Maimane,Futurelect,Mamphela Ramphele,Lindiwe
Ahead of the general elections. Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele with the DA's Helen Zille, Wilmont James, James Selfe, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane, and Mayor Patricia de Lille.

To overestimate or gloat about your contribution to someone’s leadership is “very insulting”, says Lindiwe, explaining why she’ll never speak of a current or Futurelect alum who is a young-and-upcoming leader in politics in reference to the mentoring role she, as Lindiwe, has played.

“If they want to say Lindiwe has played an important part in my leadership journey, that’s fine for them to say.

“What I can’t do is go out into the world and be, like, uThando has been on this programme and I feel like I played a role in crafting her. 

“I’ve heard people talk about me like that before. And I’ve heard people who’ve had nothing to do with my career talk about me like that before.

“And it’s incredibly insulting, because only you know what contribution different people in your life have made. So I’ve thought long and hard about this [question of ‘Which notable young-and-upcoming black female politicians or civic activists are you most proud of having played a part in mentoring?’] and . . . only our parents can claim to have made us, genetically, in the womb.

“So I hope the young people who I’ve worked with will feel like I’ve contributed to their journey, but there may be many more who contributed more than I did. I can’t say that for them.”

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She’s happier to talk about the people who have mentored her, saying that’s been powerful for her. “And that’s exactly how it should be, right?

“Instead of saying ‘I crafted Lindiwe and I moulded her into . . . ” she pauses and laughs. “Into whatever. I should be able to reflect on who it is and how it is they’ve contributed to my leadership.”

Among her career sponsors and mentors, Lindiwe counts anti-apartheid activist, academic and businesswoman Dr Mamphela Ramphele, as well as entrepreneurs Wendy Appelbaum, who is SA’s richest woman, and Basetsana Kumalo, who was democratic SA’s first Miss South Africa.

“Dr Mamphela Ramphele has been mentoring me since just after I was elected opposition leader. And she has been very intentional about it. 

“She sought me out. We set up regular meetings because she had a sense that I was out in the world on my own and in need of an older woman’s advice and support.”

“So she’s been a really big influence in my life. So is Wendy Appelbaum. She also played a really big role in helping me think about the long term for my career – not just the things I’m doing now.

“She has introduced me to an incredible network of her peers out in the world internationally.”

Media mogul and former Miss SA Basetsana Kumalo is another mentor Lindiwe credits with having played a crucial role in helping finesse her personal leadership philosophy.

“She sits on our board and is an extraordinary woman. 

“There is something so powerful about somebody who is a card-carrying member of the opposite side or opposite political party who went out of her way to seek me out and give me support and advice and, ultimately, has joined the board of Futurelect and continues to be an important presence in my life.

“Those three stand out in particular. In every chapter of my life, they have been there. I think Dr Mamphela Ramphele, when I was in parliament; Wendy, when I went off to university; and Bassie, now that I am running this organisation.

“There’s been many, many more. And I'm lucky because I had a public profile, so incredible women would reach out, saying, ‘How can I help you?’”

While Lindiwe appreciates the network of powerful women she’s been able to create, she says she believes it’s there for her to introduce them to the younger leaders – those who don’t have the public profile she had at age 31.

“That’s one of the reasons I started this programme because that [network] shouldn’t just be for the privilege of those who are well known.

“Everyone should have that opportunity if they are going into a space that’s as complicated and contested as politics. So I try to bring a little bit of structure to what I was lucky enough to receive organically throughout my career.”

There’s a huge difference between career mentorship and sponsorship, she stresses.

Young people and women are over-mentored and don’t get enough sponsorship, says the 42-year-old as she reflects on the kind of support the likes of Bassie, Wendy and Dr Ramphele gave her.

“When I talk about the women who mentored me, they were also my sponsors. They would introduce me to people, take me to events, take me by the hand and put me in positions where I could do more, interact with people who were different, or had different perspectives, and enrich my knowledge and understanding.

“So there is a huge difference between mentoring and coaching and saying, ‘this is my mentee and I talk to her and I give her advice, blah, blah, blah, and tell her about self-care,'” Lindiwe chuckles.

“And often we get overmentored as young women, black women and young people, when, in fact, what we need is sponsorship.

“It actually tends to be white males who get a lot of career sponsorship. Their mentors introduce them to people who will fund their businesses or hire them. We need a balance of both.”

And she intends to provide the balance, one young leader at a time. 

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