By Ntsiki Mkhize
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a name to watch out for; not only in the domestic political arena, but also in the global landscape. He is man who went from aspiring hip/hop artist, UCT SRC President, husband and analyst – to name but a few, all before the age of 25! In this two part series interview (it is all too awesome to compact in one release) Ntsiki takes us through the journey on a man determined to change the world.
Ntsiki: From rapper guy, to “politics” and I use that word loosely, did you ever imagine yourself here?
Sizwe: Yes. Even the Entity guys knew that in the long-term I always saw myself in the political space and they would tease me about it. I think both are quite similar in the sense that hip hop artists and politicians are always trying to convince people of their message, the one simply does so through lyrics, a beat and swag.
N: Having started out with Entity, did that help prepare you for public speaking and looking back, what was your most memorable moment with the group?
S: It was interesting and there were some really good times. We got nominated for a SARU award and also met Missy Elliot, but overall the most memorable was turning the dream into reality and being able to put music down and create an album. However it is the memories and the relationships I have taken from that, that I treasure and it’s crazy how we have gone in different directions; Nhlanhla is a lawyer and AKA has a flourishing music career.
N: You have not entirely stopped rapping. In 2011 you did a song called “Days of our Youth.” Where did that inspiration come from?
S: That is a funny story- another guy from our school…
N: *laughs* You guys went to a really good school, with a really good networking base…
S: *laughs* Yeah. So he went to the States and studied music and we have been friends since grade 2. Literally out of the blue he called me up and said he needed a rapper for one of his songs. He came back to SA and that was that.
N: And rapping feeds into your public speaking…
S: It helps, but when you are on stage performing for a crowd of people, it is different to addressing people as there is no accompanying beat to jam to. I did however draw a lot from that experience.
N: You later went on to become SRC President at UCT and that made waves. What was your drive and motivation throughout that period?
S: It was a really interesting political time and what would happen at UCT is that political parties would run together; for example SASCO and ANC together and DA with DASO on the other hand. I ran as an independent candidate and my campaign was “Learn. Build. Grow”. I was the first independent to win and it was difficult as half my SRC was DA and the other SASCO, as well as a few other independents and I had to try balance the forces. I learnt a lot – such as unifying people who are initially divided. Also people were previously despondent to the SRC and felt they did not do anything, so I really wanted to do stuff that matters to people.
N: What would you say it takes to run a successful campaign? A lot of people will say “hey guys, vote for me”, but what really sets one apart?
S: I think you ought to play to your strengths; people too often follow the cookie-cutter approach. I like music and writing and this [campaigning] on the other hand is a political affair and you have to be “formal and wear a suit”. When we had interrogations, I brought along two rappers and they rapped about why students should vote for me. That was using hip hop as a strength, and also doing something that sets you apart from the rest.
N: One of the major issues you addressed during that period was the racial admission policy at UCT. Why was that important to you?
S: That was very important. UCT was a traditionally a white university and a lot of the bias and prejudice of that was still very much embedded in the culture. I think that as South Africans it’s very easy for us to forget about race and how much it still plays a role in society and for me fact that we could bury our heads in the sand and not talk about it was unacceptable.
N: That is very true and there was one particular debate where you spoke on the issue of race mentioning a number of aspects I myself had never considered. There are definitely surface issues everyone talks about, but we hardly address those matters that lay beneath the surface and in this debate you went there. How did the Vice Chancellor, the board, academics and everyone really, respond to that?
S: The Vice Chancellor was in agreement that the issue of race should be addressed, but within the institution itself, there was a lot of push back. I remember even after that debate a number of people came to me to try sway me from my opinion. I think being mixed race in South Africa gives you a very objective opinion, because I am white enough to understand what it is to be white and also being fully aware of being black. A lot of white South African’s do not fully comprehend what it is to be black thus, we need to create that conversation where we can begin to relate.
N: In pushing that agenda, what do you hope to achieve? Furthermore, when you look back 10-20 years from now what would have been accomplished?
S: One of the reasons I am so bullish about this, is because you have to undo the injustices with the same mechanisms that created them. So if we were classified along racial lines, it is our responsibility as a generation to undo that. I also hope to be in a position to bring people together and to live to see a unified generation.
N: That would be amazing to witness and be a part of. During that time you also served an internship at the US Office of the Presidency and at an AWETHU project. How were those experiences?
S: Well the US House of Representatives is basically like parliament of America and I remember when I heard about the internship, I thought it was going to be a situation whereby I would be in some back office working for the guy who works for the guy, who works with the guy who works for the guy who works with the President. I remember getting out of the subway and you know that white dome iconic building, my office was right in that complex and I just could not believe it. Then to be in the hallways of Congress was incredible and it is amazing to see the reverence with which people in the United States treat their institutions; how proud they are to be working in Congress. Even when the Congress is doing what they may regard as a stupid thing, they maintain that respect. I could not help but think about how our institutions; such as parliament and the constitution and how they are so young and how we still have a big role to play in creating institutions that everyone trusts.
N: Do you think that we need a certain number of years in order to get those structures in place?
S: Yes, but I am also of the opinion that we need political leaders who deliberately go about trying to create these institutions and better yet, who do not undermine those institutions. It is things like the National Prosecuting Authority, which is absolutely critical and if we do not build that institution, South Africans cannot trust it and it simply compromises the state.
N: It does! Do you think that it is the people’s responsibility to hold leaders accountable and to speak up for those entities that regardless of the ruling party should not be interfered with?
S: Absolutely! And more so, not only to hold government accountable, but understand what it is we are asking of government. Globally we have seen a lot of protest action – which has been interesting – in places such as Brazil, Egypt, Turkey and even South Sudan. And we are seeing that accountability is meeting demands long after campaigns have come to a close. There is something juvenile about just shouting and not holding people accountable and in South Africa, I feel we need to set those parameters and be able to say we want the Public Protector to do these ‘ten things’ and government to perform these ‘five functions’ and if they do not do what is required, this is what the we will do.
N: That is very true. You are also an ambassador for One Young World. How did you get involved with them and what opportunity has that platform presented?
S: It has been incredible. I actually did not know about them and they spoke to UCT to ask for one student to representative at the London Summit. At the time I was working closely with the VC who picked me to go. I went to the first and second summit, however I missed the one last year and I will be attending the one in Johannesburg later this year.
N: How do we engage the youth and get young South African’s on platforms such as these?
S: I think there are a lot of opportunities out there, but for some reason as South Africans we have this inferiority complex. I went to the first OYW summit with the thinking of; “how am I going to compete with someone from the States?” However when you get to these places, you really realise that can we pretty much handle our business. As young people we must stop feeling inferior and just go! For example with OYW one can just raise the funds for it and go, as it is open to anyone.
N: Does that also go for the summit happening here in October?
S: I think there will be portions open to the public and others for delegates who have been selected, but they will stream the event online.
N: That is cool. So career wise; you are an analyst at Global Advisors, what do you do?
S: What don’t I do *laughs* Well Global Advisors is a management consulting firm; I like to think of what we do as “outsource stress.” [laughs] A company will say ‘we have this problem, we can’t solve it, you know about business – please help.’ It can be anything from improving profitability, to entering a new market, to developing a new product or having a new sales strategy. It is such a learning environment and in six months I have worked on four projects in different industries. I did one in insurance and having studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics, I knew nothing about that, then a media company and then manufacturing, so you get to learn a lot about business.
N: How are you finding Jo’burg?
S: I love it. I initially from Jo’burg, but it is the first time in five years that I have lived ten minutes away from my family, which is great. I missed them and I love them.
N: You are also a Co-Founder and Non-Exec of Grow2Lead, as well as InkuluFreeHeid and were a part of the Global Truce Movement. How do all of those integrate and how important is it to you to be involved in projects that interlink?
S: well Grow2Lead progressed into InkuluFreeHeid (IFH) and the Peace on day. Global Truce Movement was one of those nice things I was invited to. Grow2Lead was started in 2007 by a group of us who felt like we always go to camps and get addressed by old people telling us about leadership and we really wanted to know about the younger people doing it for themselves and teaching those a little younger than themselves to do the same. So we started going to schools and getting conversations going and we have now handed that over to a younger generation to keep things going and InkuluFreeHeid has become my absolute baby.
N: I love the concept by the way.
S: Thank-you. I will be working on IFH in these two months before I head overseas.
N: With IFH, do you find it challenging to get your peers, the youth and people in general who do not understand how they are affected by decisions made in politics to be interested?
S: Yes! Initially we struggled as we started with a cookie-cutter approach around why we need change and we realised we need to change the game in how young people interact with politics.That can be done through using music and hip-hop. Imagine a track by AKA around the election period, that would be better than Malema telling me how to feel about the elections. That is where I hope we go; to try redefining how to engage young people.
N: Do you see yourself being a strong political player in South Africa’s future?
S: I hope so, and that does not mean I have to occupy a position within the government. I have always been passionate about politics.
N: How do we get over that hurdle where young people’s opinions to some degree are tied to that of their parents’ or family practice and getting them to have a view of their own?
S: Just considering our demographics, it is essential that young people play a role in decisions that affect society. It does not matter how you look at it, two thirds of the population are young and we need to leverage that to the best of our abilities. For example COSATU has about 2 million members and they use only that force to engage with and influence government, multiply that by ten and you have our youth. We have not organised ourselves to take advantage of that. Young people are going to decide our next election, but we will be divided amongst all these political parties-whereas we could all come together and address the issues we are facing as a whole and we can say ‘if you do not change x, y and z we are not voting for you’ and that would change the election.
N: What are we missing though? There is that concentration of youth who are only concerned with getting the house, the cars and the money and they do not feel they are affected by such decisions. Then there is that group that is really frustrated, who are not happy with their government, who are unemployed and just do not know what to do. Are we just waiting for a ‘young Sizwe’ to push the band wagon?
S: There are so many angles from which to tackle that. On the one hand for example there are people in my situation; you understand what depravation is, because you have family living in that situation and you have lived with them – be it a township or the rural areas. Then we also know what it is like to live in suburbia, and that creates all kinds of identity conundrums. I have been through all these phases and it is about striking a balance. As young people we should aspire to work and make our own way and make money, but we should not be obverse and opulent about it; ‘don’t wear a purple suit.’
On the other hand, young people do want leadership and I cannot think of one leader in South Africa’s leadership space right now that I look up to. We need to ask; “who do I look up to.” I mean, Vavi (Zwelinzima Vavi) has lost all credibility in my eyes; “how do you have an extra marital affair in your own office”. It is quite sad, because there is an interesting psychological relationship that people have with their political leaders-kind of like a mother or a father- and it is quite a traumatic experience when a political leader disappoints you and we have had a lot of that in the last 20 years.
N: Do you think we grow up and forget? Because our mothers and fathers come from the townships and rural areas and we have some memory or experience of that. Then we get to plush Rosebank and Sandton and it is all of a sudden not so bad any more.
S: Yes, but too often we blame ourselves and we do not realise the situations we are cast in. Take for example; a young black person, which I regard myself as, and a young white guy who also went to St. Johns. As soon as I start working there is someone that is going to call me for school fees and if I am the only person in my family who is working, I have to provide for them, splitting my income in many different ways. Whereas my white counterpart from the same high school probably has inheritance from three generations. Secondly, he only has an immediate family to care about and therefore has more freedom to do what he wants. So for us there is this pressure to start working, but as soon as you start working, you get shifted into this ‘life of Sandton’ then you get blamed for it. So there is that element of blame, but we also need to check ourselves.
N: Just back on the leadership topic, would you agree with the statement that how our leaders choose to run their lives sets the tone for the country, or is it unfair to put them under such scrutiny?
S: We should hold political leaders to a higher standard than we do other people, because they make decisions which affect our lives and we give them that power or authority. Also they use our money for it, but I do not think we should hold them to standards which are unnecessarily high. I think that the principle that one would expect from a President is that he would not have an extra martial affair with his own friends’ daughter. I do not think that is too much of a standard to ask.
N: How do you feel about the future of South Africa and our continent?
S: I have mixed feelings. I am hopeful for South Africa, but I think we are going into a critical phase now and the next 10 years are going to define a lot about the next 50 and if we get this phase right then awesome, but if we do not – I am very worried. In terms of the continent, it is pretty much the same. There has been a huge amount of progress; the diminishing of conflicts, the number of “democracies” as well as the economic growth which is taking place; that is really positive. It is a question again on how we leverage that power, in as much as the youth in South Africa needs to leverage their power, so do African states. Everyone wants to trade with Africa (China, America) and it is not just about aid anymore, but rather how are we going to take advantage of that? I hope that when the story is written about this generation, it has a different tone to our current history.
N: And with this generation, do you think that we should be South Africa focused or more centered around Africa?
S: I think we should focus on SA for now, making sure we get home right and then move outward from there. So first SA, then the SADC region, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, then the rest of the continent. Yes there are times when opportunities or decisions arise that may be beneficial for South Africa, but detrimental to Africa and those must be treated on an ad hoc basis.
N: Bite sizes indeed. Do you feel there is a lot of pressure to be a certain kind of person, because of who your parents are?
S: There has been, especially from around 2005 when my dad was under major public scrutiny.
N: Has he had a great influence on the man that you are?
S: Definitely. People do not know what an amazing person he is and the media filters a lot of who he is. I went to go live in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape where my father grew up when I was 18/19 for a year and that changed my life. What people do not know is how he got here; there was one scholarship for one black student in the whole of the Eastern Cape in his matric year and he got the best marks and was awarded the scholarship. Had he not done that and worked hard, he may have ended up like the other guys.
Another thing people do not know is that I have never lived with my dad, although my parents have remained good friends throughout my life, they were never married and my mother raised me and she has been the biggest influence in my life. They are completely different but both very loving.
Still as captivated as Ntsiki was? Check out part two of this interview Friday, 27 September.