Can editor Zibi rise to the occasion?

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Even at his most impassioned, Songezo Zibi’s pastoral etiquette speaks as much to his mien as it raises a salient question: sure, he’s one of the educated ones, with an impressive resume, but is the Man from Mqanduli calloused enough to weather the vicissitudes of the South African political climate?

Survival in South African politics hinges on the ability to take off one’s gloves from time to time, or at least to bare one’s teeth. Be it at white monopoly capital, foreign nationals, the judiciary, an indecisive president, a bloated cabinet, having a go at somebody – anybody – is an indispensable quality for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously enough to be voted for in Mzansi.

But Zibi, the low-key former editor of Business Day, appears to be labouring on a completely different script – one that traditionalists would probably laugh off as amateurish, and has thus far not done much to win the good graces of grass-roots voters. The man speaks of mental health, juvenile justice, and wanting to change South Africa’s political culture, while recruiting volunteers and organisers rather than establishing branches and signing up members (which he regards as an opportunistic scramble for positions). In fact, even though his organisation, RISE Mzansi, will contest the 2024 election, this comes with a caveat: it isn’t really a political party, but a ‘movement’.

RISE Mzansi supporters doing some campaigning. Picture: RIZE Mzansi website.

Although Zibi’s roots are sunk deeply in the rural Eastern Cape, there is nothing of the casual aggression of a Julius Malema about him. Even his swipes at the ruling party are uttered in tones laced with propriety. ‘The ANC,’ says Zibi at one point, ‘has anchored South African society for thirty years … with the ANC losing legitimacy, who’s playing that role now?’ This is good formal parliamentary fare, but how far will it get in a parliament that often mimics the vulgar conduct of an inner-city speakeasy?

Despite hammering the message of an alternative to the ANC, Zibi has — surprisingly — declined to join the so-called Moonshot Pact (the multi-party septet that aims to rattle Khongolose to its foundation). His reason is probably the most scathing thing he’s said: that those voters who voted in the last election ‘have already pronounced that they don’t want them’.

Zibi’s foray into politics has provoked a bit of a brouhaha – at least among ‘clever blacks’, a.k.a. the black middle class. Not enough to cause a ripple in the broader national sense, but just enough not to vanish into the abyss of the entirely forgotten either. Seen as a refuge for those blacks who can’t stomach the stifling, cadre-centric posture of the ruling ANC as well as the out-of-touch race denialism of the DA, a few disgruntled somebodies have come to call the movement ‘home’.

Formerly a key figure in the DA’s elite structures, Makashule Gana nowadays does duty as RISE’s national organiser. In August, the DA MP Nomsa Marchesi also turned her back on the party to serve as RISE’s convenor in the Free State.

Former DA big shot Makashule Gana campaigning for his new political home. Picture: RISE Mzansi Facebook Page.

Styled as a non-racial party in which merit rather than skin colour is the yardstick of upward mobility, the DA has struggled to keep up appearances in the face of explosive fall-outs over the years. These have seen the party bleed several outstanding black leaders, allegedly because it prefers waxing lyrical about non-racialism than toeing it earnestly behind closed doors. Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba – the latter two now heading their own parties – have been the biggest losses to the DA, no doubt taking a chunk of black support with them.

Following decades as a corporate high-flyer, Zibi is also clearly in the habit of flocking with acolytes of a similar plumage. His top brass teems with business-minded and ideas-driven people, rather than Marxist-Leninist revolutionary types. Between organisational obligations and television appearances, his byline also features regularly in the nation’s top publications.

But if history is a reliable guide, the South African political arena resembles less of an auditorium for frumpy intellectualism than a canvas for pugilistic, even priestly oratory. A penchant for delivering Obama-esque speeches did not help the former DA leader Mmusi Maimane – a palatable, liberal, poster boy of the ‘Dr Martin Luther King’ variety – to grow the party’s black support back in 2019.

Yet Julius Malema’s EFF mounted an impressive showing by bagging 6.4% of the national vote, and became the country’s third biggest party just a year later. In the eyes of foreign observers, this might seem ludicrous, but as eParkeni have long been thumping, the South African political game is a different kettle of fish. Just how many of these new parties, RISE notwithstanding, are attuned to this fact remains too early to say.

For instance, earlier this year, a bemused nation watched as Zibi’s experimental ‘movement’ gambit seemed to confuse even Newzroom Afrika anchor Thembekile Mrototo. In a country where bread and butter politicking tends to attract supporters by the busloads, can the candidate who emphasises seemingly vague pursuits hope to get very far? Perhaps Zibi, like his counterparts in ARISE South Africa and Xiluva’s unconventional campaigns, have their sights on the youth, who are more likely to be amenable to new ways of doing than older generations.

The inspirational BC leader Steve Biko … his teachings seem to be playing a role in RISE Mzansi’s messaging. Picture: Wikipedia.

Or maybe he has torn a page from the late Steve Biko’s BC movement, hoping to resurrect a spirit of vukuzenzele – proud self-reliance – in marginalised black communities. The crux of his messaging seems to be aimed at getting people to get up and do things for themselves rather than looking to a government that has consistently let them down.

It has become a norm rather than an aberration that political affiliation in these spaces goes cheek by jowl with self-enrichment. The days of the moral, incorruptible cadre who as a ‘servant of the people’ has long gone – gradually eroded in the early years of the post-democratic project when it dawned on people who got their hands on the levers of power how easy it was to cook the books and get away with it – and eventually put out of its misery in the state capture years.

For Zibi and other leaders of new political groupings, the ANC is beyond redemption. Fingered by its own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, as ‘accused number one’ in respect of corruption, and given his admission before the Zondo Commission that the party ‘should have done more to prevent the abuse of power and the misappropriation of resources that defined the era of state capture’, the ship to self-correction has long sailed. Zibi and Co hope to step up and grab hold of the rudder, but the questions persist.

Are their campaigns effective enough to penetrate the enduring fealty the ANC enjoys as the ‘liberator of the masses? If the majority of the population has been reduced to a ‘welfare populace,’ would they find any incentive in the concept of self- rather than state-aided empowerment? And what is RISE bringing to the table to ensure that it will deal decisively with South Africa’s Achilles’ heel, namely corruption?

In a clunky SABC interview, Zibi himself was at pains not to disclose who his party’s donors are. For those who are abreast of these things, there has been general apprehension as to who might be funding these new players, in particular the signatories to the Moonshot Pact. As a result, those of a pan-Africanist bent are having a field day accusing the black leaders of those parties of being stooges of faceless, post-colonial puppet masters pulling the strings from the comforts of ill-gotten privilege.

So when the last sentence has been written about the elections that will see political rivals put aside their differences to confront what they consider to be the common and singular threat to the country’s wellbeing, namely the ANC, what will be made of the man from Mqanduli? He hasn’t resorted to the sure-footed path to the people’s favour; painting himself as a ‘struggle stalwart’ who heroically stared down white oppression. Nothing about him as an defiant teenager, hurling stones at apartheid’s menacing apparatus of subjugation. Having himself smuggled across the borders for military training in Lusaka or Moscow. Packing a Makarov in his coat, brewing Molotov cocktails inside modest church buildings, or debating Marxist-Leninist theory in the company of beret-clad Che Guevara types in the village.

Instead, there is something of the exemplary, well-off and successful black ‘hack’ about him. Articulate, clearly ‘booked,’ (that’s ‘educated’ to you, dear reader), and quite at ease around the dinner tables of the cultured and affluent. He writes well, is a demure figure on television screens, and hardly ever speaks in high, emotive octaves. So Zibi is not a typical politician –  certainly not the kind who packs out stadiums and mobilises the masses. The middle classes, both black and white, may warm to him. But most members of the working class as well as the jobless poor (apparently referred to derisively as the ‘lumpenproletariat’ by ANC apparatchiks in Luthuli House) don’t read Business Day, and have probably never even heard of Songezo Zibi.

FEATURE IMAGE: Songezo Zibi on the campaign trail. Picture: RISE Mzansi website.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap