Fatima Asmal interviews ZANELE MAGWAZA-MSIBI, leader of South Africa's National Freedom PartyDURBAN - Zanele Magwaza-Msibi is a woman with a mission: to serve the people of South Africa. She is poised to become leader of South Africa's newest political party, the National Freedom Party (NFP), after breaking away from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), where she served as national chairperson
In this new role she comes into the growing tradition of female political party founders and leaders in South Africa, first achieved by Helen Suzman, one of the founders of the apartheid-era Progressive Party and one of the few white voices challenging racial discrimination at the time; Helen Zille, the current leader of the Democratic Alliance; and Patricia De Lille, founder and president of the Independent Democrats.
Fatima Asmal spoke to Magwaza-Msibi about her reasons for leaving the IFP and her aims and aspirations for her new party.
Q: What were the challenges you experienced as the female national chair of the IFP?
A: It is a fact that there are some people within the IFP who don’t believe that a woman can be a leader. It was ironic because I was the national chairperson of the IFP, the second to the president. Therefore, I was occupying the very highest position in the IFP and I was getting a lot of support from the president and other members.
But there are some within the party who don’t believe that a woman can take a leadership position and be at the helm of the party.
Q: Why did you break away from the party?
A: I did not want to do that. It took me about two and a half years to take a decision. In fact, it was not my decision but I felt I could no longer continue because I took it as a constructive dismissal from my party.
I don’t want to talk about what has been going on inside the IFP because I don’t want people to have a bad picture of the party as if I’m saying it because I’m disgruntled, because I’m not disgruntled.
I loved the IFP very much and the leadership of the IFP. It was a very difficult decision to take but, ultimately, I felt that there was nothing else that I could do because I tried to mend things between us but I failed.
Q: And your motivation for forming the NFP?
A: It was not me, it was the support -- the ground support that I have and the aspirations that people had for me. I couldn’t just slaughter those aspirations, I couldn’t just try and break away from them because I have worked so hard since I was young for the communities and people know me very well. It was them having seen that I’ve gone through a lot in the party. They felt that they knew that ultimately the party was going to expend me or dismiss me and they came together and started something.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with the NFP?
A: My main objective is to serve the people of South Africa and to serve them better than anyone else. You can’t serve people unless you are in a political party and unless you are in government.
I have a track record, fortunately for me. I’ve been the mayor of Zululand for thirteen years. In the period I’ve been the mayor I’ve been chosen as the number one district in terms of service delivery. I’ve never had toyi-toyiing in my area of jurisdiction, even from within the municipality.
I believe very strongly that if you work, you have to work with the people, you have to inform them. I believe very strongly in clean governance, in service delivery, I believe very strongly that we have to fight corruption, I believe very strongly that the issues which affect more especially the voiceless – women and young people – those issues should have prominence in whatever I do, and also the elderly people.
In Zululand I’ve been working with all those people. I was the only municipality that was able to go out and get funding from overseas. I’ve built more than 450 classrooms in my tenure as mayor, [despite] that not being my responsibility and obligation as mayor.
My conviction is that in South Africa, we need a very strong opposition, an opposition that’s going to help the ruling party, to keep it on its toes - because if there is no strong opposition, the ruling party gets too much power and too much power corrupts and corrupts absolutely.
That is why there’s a lot of corruption, that is why there’s a lot of nepotism, that is why there’s a high level of unemployment and corruption that is going on in all levels of government, because the ANC has become too big.
I don’t want to see our country sliding into a one party state. Therefore I believe very strongly that we have to get an opportunity to serve the people and to serve them better than everyone else.
Q: How has the party been received thus far?
A: I’m very much humbled by the reception that I’m receiving from all the communities where I go. I received a call from a very passionate woman from Limpopo who was saying she learnt about me having started the party and they have spoken to a lot of people. She said she has already informally registered about 900 people to join our party.
We only introduced the party recently at the Durban City Hall but I was amazed at the number of people who attended - the newspapers were saying there were more than 5,000 people there – I was humbled.
That same day I went to Nongoma in Mhlabatini where the president of the IFP comes from. I was amazed. Over two days I had about 6,000 people who had registered as members there and more than 5,000 in Ulundi. It says to me the people are coming in in their numbers…I think people are taking it as a breath of fresh air.
Q: How do you rate your chances as woman leader of a political party?
A: There is always a first. I know that it is the first time that South Africa has a black woman as a leader of a political party. I know that it is still very difficult for some traditionalists to believe that a black woman can successfully lead a party but I think we are going to succeed because of the people that I have, the calibre of the leadership that I have and also the ground support that we have – I do believe that we will definitely succeed.
Q: Have you learnt any lessons from Helen Zille's experiences?
A: One of the lessons I’ve learnt from her is to be there when people need you. Not be there only when it is elections. I’ve seen her traveling the whole country, going to the territories that were not pro-Democratic Alliance previously. I think that is a lesson – I personally believe very much in people and in communities and in working with them.
Q: As a woman, do you have any intention to canvas support from other women specifically?
A: I do believe that women will definitely support me. Women are more sympathetic towards the needs of the people…If there is no food at home on the table, you know best as a woman. If you don’t have money to pay your children’s school fees, the person who knows that first is the woman. As a woman, I would know first about the needs of the people, more especially the needs of the poorest of the poor.