SA’s fresh voices: Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh – the cage-rattling sceptic SA so badly needs

Prepare to be uplifted by this interview with Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a fresh voice whose direct questioning and articulate commentary consistently ruffles the feathers of SA’s rich and powerful. An Oxford doctorate, award-winning book author, activist, rapper, university lecturer, potential soccer star, now trainee lawyer – creator of the mushrooming new media platform SMWX is clearly living a full life. His secret sauce? Healthy scepticism, a quality in short supply right now as a suddenly adoring media fuels the euphoria of a GNU honeymoon. Mpofu-Walsh spoke to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Highlight from the Interview

In a probing interview with Alec Hogg, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh reflects critically on South Africa’s new government of national unity (GNU) under President Ramaphosa. Drawing parallels to historical precedents, Mpofu-Walsh highlights the challenges faced by diverse coalitions, cautioning that unity may not equate to effective governance across ideological divides. He emphasizes the need for tangible results in key areas like unemployment and service delivery before premature praise, advocating instead for constructive scepticism to hold the government accountable.

Beyond politics, Mpofu-Walsh shares insights into his intellectual influences, citing books on history and constitutional evolution as pivotal to shaping his worldview. As the founder of a burgeoning media platform, he discusses the unexpected journey into entrepreneurship, navigating challenges from content creation to financial management. Mpofu-Walsh’s blend of historical perspective, entrepreneurial acumen, and commitment to critical inquiry underscores his role not just as a commentator but as a catalyst for thoughtful engagement in South Africa’s evolving political landscape. His vision for the country involves thoughtful constitutional reflection and agile governance, themes he explores both in his readings and in the pragmatic challenges of running a business.

Edited transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

00:00:07:04 – 00:00:29:14 Alec Hogg: I’m really enjoying this little mini-series that we have, talking to the fresh voices that have emerged on the South African media scene, and one of the biggest, loudest, and most influential of them is Dr. Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. We’re talking with him today.

00:00:29:16 – 00:00:50:06 Alec Hogg: Sizwe, thanks for joining us. It’s been interesting watching your development. And, you know, when you look back on it, I suppose the first question for me is: Here you are. You’ve been to Oxford University. You’ve got a doctorate from Oxford. The world has to be your oyster as a consequence of that. You’ve got a really interesting background.

00:00:50:06 – 00:01:04:11 Alec Hogg: The more I dig into your background, the more of a polymath you appear to be, with interests and achievements in many different fields. So why are you doing what you’re doing? Which is really paddling your own canoe in the media space?

00:01:04:13 – 00:01:36:11 Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh: Well, thanks so much for having me. I’m an avid viewer of your channel, which may surprise some, and it’s wonderful to be here. You know, you’re right, when you’re at a place like Oxford, you start to feel like you can do whatever you want to do. You know, offers from Goldman Sachs are close at hand or writing books, just doing anything conventional really becomes particularly achievable.

00:01:36:12 – 00:02:19:08 Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh: But I’ve always had a deep passion for our country, as I know you do too. And I truly believe that digital media has taken off fully in other places and has matured. But I think it’s ripe for a revolution in our country right now. And I think as our politics has shifted, many people haven’t realized that our media landscape is also shifting, and there’s a great opportunity now at a fraction of the cost to shape discourse, to deepen discourse, to do the things that one gets so frustrated that the mainstream media doesn’t do. And that really gets me out of bed and excites me, because I think our country is at an important turning point, and those who play a role in the media landscape are going to be just as, if not more, important and influential than those who are on the front lines of politics.

00:02:30:20 – 00:02:51:00 Alec Hogg: Now you have got a platform through the SABC, but you primarily broadcast for your own account. Was there ever a thought of perhaps going in with a big media brand? Or perhaps, just to put it differently, why did you want to paddle your own canoe?

00:02:51:02 – 00:03:24:06 Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh: Yes. Well, I lasted one year at the SABC, so I’m actually not going in there anymore. But that’s a story for another day, actually, and maybe we’ll have a whole interview on that. But it was fascinating to see the inside of a public broadcaster. It reaffirmed my suspicion that traditional and mainstream media are still very far behind the curve and haven’t quite woken up to the explosion of digital channels in our country at the moment.

00:03:24:07 – 00:03:56:10 Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh: I just think that the formats of traditional media feel very outdated in particular. And this is something I enjoy about your channel too, is that there’s this idea that you have to be confrontational in order to be a legitimate journalistic voice. And what I’ve always found more interesting is to sit back and bring someone into conversation, but not antagonize them to the point where they start to feel defensive. And often what you get from that, and that’s kind of the format of my interviews, in addition to the analysis that I do, is you get an interesting perspective and you learn something from the other person. And yes, maybe you don’t trap them into making some great admission, but you give your audience the benefit of the doubt that, you know, if the person says something crazy, the audience will pick it up.

00:03:56:10 – 00:04:17:20 Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh: And you don’t have to be the person constantly pretending like you’re smarter than the other person. And I just feel like that format is much more effective for South Africa today rather than, you know, the 20-minute SABC interview or radio interview where there are five ad breaks and you actually can’t get a sense of what the person really thinks.

00:04:17:20 – 00:04:40:01 Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh: And that’s what excites me about the work that we like to do in this space.

00:04:43:20 – 00:05:10:15 Alec Hogg: It is extraordinary. You’re very similar in your philosophy of your audience, I think, to the way that we at BizNews have fallen in, even previously at many we’ve, in that we have never overestimated the knowledge of our audience. But you can never underestimate their intellect. People are much, much smarter than traditional media gives them credit for.

00:05:10:17 – 00:05:34:01 Alec Hogg: And I think the way you’ve articulated it now is something that has just been so badly missed for many years. And I guess it’s because media, alt media was very monopolistic. And now that people can get to absorb and to enjoy the kind of work that you do, I think that it opens minds as well. And isn’t that really what we get to do?

00:05:36:20 – 00:06:13:10
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I think so, and, you know, we will probably get into the new in this political moment right now. But one of the crises in South African media for me, especially in our Ramaphosa era, was that media almost became a cheerleader for the government and stopped playing its critical role, not in the sense of having antagonistic interviews, but just exploring other perspectives, looking at things from different angles and allowing voices who are critical to also have their say, not the only side, but to have their say.

Read more: Helen Zille: DA won’t prop up ANC in Gauteng – ‘play fair or we’re out’

00:06:13:10 – 00:06:36:20
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
And I think what digital media has now unlocked is a whole set of different perspectives, which then allows the viewer to come to the news and say, “Okay, let me see what happens.” And then they probably come to my channel and they listen to a completely different perspective. But either of those perspectives would probably have been impossible to access just by the mainstream platforms.

00:06:36:20 – 00:06:55:18
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
And that’s why I think it’s exciting. There are also huge dangers. When you start to learn these technologies, you realize how replicable it is and how bad actors can also probably make use of it. But the fact of the matter is, this moment is here now, and it’s not going anywhere.

00:06:55:20 – 00:07:03:09
Alec Hogg:
You’re 35, you’ve already achieved a huge amount. You look ahead 15 years, where do you aim to be?

00:07:03:11 – 00:07:25:16
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
So, you know, I don’t know, Alec. I’ve resisted a number of things my whole life. The first thing I resisted unsuccessfully because I’m now finishing a law degree is law. As you know, my father’s, and why a lot of people around me, my godfather was a judge at the Constitutional Court. So law has always been central in my family.

00:07:25:16 – 00:07:49:02
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
And I rebelled against studying law. But I’ve now started that, politics has always also been something that’s expected from me, because politics is also in my family. My mum was an ANC branch chair and actually beat my father to that post just as I was born. I don’t think he ever lived that down. Okay, enough of that.

00:07:49:04 – 00:08:19:08
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
But I’ve rebelled because I’m a contrarian. And I’m so glad I have a chance to say that contrary to many perceptions, I’m not a member of any political party, and I don’t find a home in any of our political options right now. And so I’ve never been comfortable uttering a party line. And that’s why right now, the media feels like the right place to be where I can find my voice and I can express it freely.

00:08:19:08 – 00:08:45:19
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
So I don’t know, Alec. I might be in some GNU dungeon in 15 years. Who knows? But I leave the future open to many possibilities. Maybe our platforms will be so big by then that it won’t even matter. You know, it was a funny thing. I heard that when I was at Oxford, Facebook had just really begun booming.

00:08:45:21 – 00:08:59:05
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
And someone said to Mark Zuckerberg he was in conversation, “Is your aim to be president of the United States?” And Zuckerberg responded, “When I’m done, I won’t need to.”

00:08:59:06 – 00:09:22:16
Alec Hogg:
I like that. A GNU dungeon. I know you said it in jest, but I suppose in a way, the way the world is going at the moment, these are all kinds of threats, imagined or unimagined, that exist. And how are you seeing the democratic project in South Africa? How strong do you feel that it is?

00:09:22:18 – 00:09:50:07
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
You know, I have mixed feelings. And I think as South Africans we often fail to express those mixed feelings. We swing between extremes of euphoria and hysteria. And I think the truth is somewhere in between. And I can feel the nation swinging to another euphoric extreme right now. And I completely understand that there’s a lot to be hopeful about.

00:09:50:09 – 00:10:10:09
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
Topmost of which for me is the hammering that the ANC got in the election and just the way that South Africans from all kinds of backgrounds stood up and said, “This far, no further.” And I think that that message, no matter who the government is in future, will resound across many generations. So that’s why I’m hopeful.

00:10:10:11 – 00:10:43:11
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
But I’m also trepidatious because in this moment of euphoria, I think we’re losing a lot. And although the ANC, in my view, lost the election, I think it has won the negotiations since after the election and has found ways to reconsolidate its power under the guise of this new unity. And in that way, I think, because it has co-opted certain other parties and other voices into this project.

00:10:43:13 – 00:11:16:00
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
We have a situation where there’s very little critical reflection on what this new unity means and what it can become. And I’m really determined to play the role of constructive criticism, trying to counterbalance this euphoria against the reality that I think, practically and even in theory, this GNU still has a lot to prove. The jury for me is still very much out on whether they can achieve what many seem to believe they will easily achieve.

00:11:16:01 – 00:11:18:03
Alec Hogg:
So how will you play that role?

00:11:18:05 – 00:11:55:02
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
Well, I think on my platform, I try to curate a set of conversations which come from many perspectives. In fact, the party I interviewed the most in the election was the DA, funnily enough. But I also try to curate voices who I think are interesting but also critical. In my analysis, I always try to ask myself if everyone is thinking one way, then what could the pitfalls of that be?

00:11:55:04 – 00:12:25:09
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
Because, you know, they say if everyone agrees, then not everyone is thinking. And so I’m very clear in my analysis that the GNU should be praised when it does something right, when it achieves something. The GNU hasn’t achieved anything yet. I think the mistake we made during the Ramaphosa presidency was congratulating before there was any need to congratulate.

00:12:25:09 – 00:12:50:09
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
Then what happened was the government realized that, oh, we can basically do anything because people aren’t even looking anymore. They just want to congratulate us for what we do. I will be the first to praise the GNU if it tackles unemployment, if we see real progress on service delivery, if we see important changes in energy and justice. Then we can actually sit back and say, you know what? Well done. But until then, I think we need to remain sceptical. This government needs to know that if it puts a foot wrong, we will be there to challenge it because I fear complacency more than its opposite.

00:13:05:11 – 00:13:39:12
Alec Hogg:
Isn’t that the beauty of the media environment as it now is? You’ve got hundreds of thousands of people who watch your interviews, your perspectives on YouTube, which would have been impossible in the past. So when I was your age, we had SABC, and nobody wanted to work for the SABC for pretty obvious reasons back then. So it is a responsibility, I guess, for people to be prodded and certainly to speak truth to power.

00:13:39:12 – 00:13:43:10
Alec Hogg:
Well, we know how they operate in that kind of environment.

00:13:43:12 – 00:14:09:08
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
Absolutely. And not everyone can, you know, and I think many people, maybe for financial reasons, would prefer to speak outside of the public eye. I completely understand that many people are too poor to even get a platform. In the position that I’m in, I am actually someone who is able to speak critically.

00:14:09:10 – 00:14:30:22
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
That’s why I do it. I think we must always remember in South Africa that there are many who can’t or won’t, and that critical space, which I fear might be shrinking in this GNU moment. For example, supporters of the DA might be confused as to what to do now. They’re used to criticizing the government, but now they’re part of the government. Their voices are going to be really important in holding their own DA ministers accountable and making sure that we don’t have an echo chamber that just praises the government and then leads us to postpone the budget changes we need in view of consensus building.

00:14:54:03 – 00:14:59:00
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I’m not so sure how much we need consensus right now. I think we need decisive action.

00:14:59:05 – 00:15:18:16
Alec Hogg:
How long do you think this government of national unity will last? And I ask this because something in my interview yesterday with Helen Zille really came back at me. She said we weren’t going to be taken again by the ANC in Gauteng because we agreed to six cabinet posts. We thought it was a cabinet of 27.

00:15:18:16 – 00:15:39:20
Alec Hogg:
But Cyril then just increased the cabinet, and hence we found ourselves looking at something very different from what we imagined. Starting from that base, the shotgun marriage might not really be there to last for very long. I’m actually expressing something here, but I’d love to get your insight on that.

00:15:39:22 – 00:16:15:10
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
It’s an interesting question. And if history is any precedent, even the 1994 GNU, which lasted until 1996, only lasted two years. That was a constitutionally minded government brought together by the towering presence of Nelson Mandela, representative of 92% of the electorate. Even a government of that kind of legitimacy found it difficult to manoeuvre across the ideological divides that characterized it.

00:16:15:12 – 00:16:39:17
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I don’t know, but, well, you know, I have used the term. I even worry and wonder whether this is genuine or a useful term. President Ramaphosa has very skillfully positioned the government as synonymous with the nation, so that if you disagree with the government, you are now disagreeing with national unity itself.

00:16:39:19 – 00:17:06:23
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
What we really have here is a multi-party coalition. It’s very diverse and quite representative, but it’s not quite the same as a government that unites the nation. I’m not even sure if it unites the parties yet. I think we will work hard to try and make it work initially because it would be a disaster for all concerned to let this slip.

Read more: Why would-be minister Herman Mashaba is delighted to be outside GNU

00:17:06:23 – 00:17:31:05
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
But I think there’s a very short honeymoon period, during which we are still in the glow. When that runs out, I have serious practical concerns about how this cabinet works, how they make decisions, how they have the agility to move at the speed needed to fix problems created by the same people who are in this cabinet right now.

00:17:31:06 – 00:17:41:20
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I think patience will wear quite thin if they can’t bring very tangible victories quickly.

00:17:41:22 – 00:17:52:13
Alec Hogg:
Well, we can rely on you to be waving the flag and asking the difficult questions. Just by way of background, what kind of books do you read? What shapes your worldview?

00:17:52:15 – 00:18:30:01
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I read a very wide range. I really enjoy history. In fact, there’s a fascinating book I’m reading right now called “The Quartet,” about the founding of the United States and their moment of constitutional transition. It’s a really fascinating moment for me now, as debates around South Africa’s constitution seem to be gaining ground. Every democracy with longevity has the capacity for recreation and self-recreation.

00:18:30:03 – 00:19:05:22
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I feel like we may be going into one of those periods in our history where we need to sit back and really think about the fundamentals and recreate. “The Quartet” is about these four founders, Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and John Jay, the first Supreme Court justice, and how they took the early version of the Constitution and remade it into the final US Constitution we have now. So that’s just one. I read a lot about personal development and time management, funnily enough.

00:19:06:00 – 00:19:34:04
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I really enjoy that literature. You know, how do you make the most of your time and structure your calendar? Also literature and law, not now because I’m studying law. There’s a lot and a whole lot of podcasts. I think podcasts are just as important as books. I actually can get as much out of watching a show like this or an informative podcast as from reading.

00:19:34:06 – 00:19:56:07
Alec Hogg:
Looking back on your entrepreneurial pursuits to date, because there would be a lot of guys looking at you and saying, I want to be like him. Okay, I haven’t been to Oxford, I probably won’t get a doctorate, but I would also like to start my own business. How much of that comes into your thinking on a day-to-day basis?

00:19:56:07 – 00:20:00:18
Alec Hogg:
Do you have to deal with bank managers and staff issues, etc.?

00:20:00:20 – 00:20:28:01
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
It’s hilarious because I seem to have become a reluctant entrepreneur. It was not in the plan, but this channel is a fully-fledged business now. That means engaging with everyone from those who shoot the content to building the audience, managing the finances, ensuring sound financial management so things can last.

00:20:28:03 – 00:20:47:03
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
I’ve learned a great deal. I actually worked for six months as a management consultant just before starting this as well. It’s been fascinating. They say the best businesses grow organically out of a passion to do something, and a business builds that passion up.

00:20:47:03 – 00:20:56:15
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh:
So that’s been really interesting to me. I’ve learned a lot while flying a plane and building it at the same time.

00:20:56:17 – 00:21:19:11
Alec Hogg:
Warren Buffett says, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. For me, Alec Hogg, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure talking with you. I hope, as you do, to never work a day in my life. We will be back to catch up on your progress in time to come. Thank you for joining us today. I’m Alec Hogg from BizNews.com.

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