Table Talk

Natasha Mazzone: the princess of DA opera

After Natasha Mazzone was appointed the DA's spokesperson, she became embroiled in a series of heated disputes

12 August 2018 - 00:00 By SHANTHINI NAIDOO

We meet Natasha Mazzone, deputy chair of the DA federal council, on a cold, blustery day in Johannesburg at the party's colonial-chic building in Bruma.
The 39-year-old arrives in her zippy yellow Fiat, tall and poised, dressed casually. The signature shock of grey-blonde hair is loose at her strong shoulders. Her natural hair is "pitch black", she says.
It is the Women's Day holiday, but she has a full day planned.
"As a feminist thinker, every day is Women's Day, right? There is a united feeling, of women worldwide, that no matter what, women work every single day. But I do love the fact that we honour the giants on whose shoulders we stand. I don't think it is about having a day off to eat pancakes. It is to say thanks to women who had courage that I can't begin to imagine. The bravery of facing being imprisoned, beaten - yet they stood their ground. It gives me goosebumps. That to me is why it is my obligation to make sure we don't let those women down."
Mazzone is big on appearance."I get tweets calling me Parliament Barbie because I manicure my nails and I have bleached blonde hair that's tinged blue.
"I am a woman, I don't shy away from that. I don't have a deep voice. I'm 6.2ft and I wear the highest heels, so I make myself 6.6ft. A man came up to me in parliament and asked: 'Why do you wear shoes that high?' I said: 'It is to make you feel even shorter.' I am what I am. If people like it, they do, if they don't. look, I would prefer that they like me. But if they don't that's OK. I don't feel like I have to overcompensate because I am a woman.
"I've never been made to feel like that in the DA. Our top portfolios are managed by women. Women like Helen Suzman, Albertina Sisulu, told us it is OK to be a woman and be in a leadership position.
"What does frustrate me is that if you're a strong woman leader, people say: 'Wow, what a bitch.' If a man is a strong leader they go: 'Wow, what a leader.' We still need to break through that.
"I meet extraordinary women every day. I do not have children and I don't know how women do it every day. I am not the one being brave. You are. The housewife who says that's 'all she does'. The women in disadvantaged areas who are up at 3am, have to get food ready, get the family ready so they can get to work, only for their employer to ask why the taxi was five minutes late.
"These are astounding women. We need to appreciate what women do every day. That's not a feminist speaking, that's the realist in me talking. I don't think we appreciate what women go through to get life done."
Which is why it's a blow that some of the most public fights in the DA have been between its women.
Patricia de Lille told Mazzone to shut up in not so many words, but Mazzone wouldn't listen."Oh well, there she goes again," De Lille reportedly said. "I can only hope that all these politicians who only speak because they like to hear their own voices can stop talking."
She was referring to Mazzone's comment following De Lille's agreement to step down as Cape Town mayor last week, when Mazzone said there were allegations of corruption that De Lille would still have to answer to.
De Lille accused Mazzone of being a "scripted spokesperson tasked with smearing my name on the DA's behalf".
Mazzone says: "The interesting thing is that I don't think Patricia and I have said three words to each other in five years. The problems started when I became the party spokesperson, because it was a federal council issue, and that is my job. It sort of became the Natasha-Patricia show when I simply portrayed the voice of my party. The open letter came [in which De Lille called her a liar and said she was disgusting]. It was unnecessarily rude, uncalled for, but that is the nature of politics.
"My response was measured, that we were not going to enter into a personal mud-slinging debate, I will never allow that. For now, the parties have found the best solution to a difficult problem in the interim. I hope she understands it was starting to impact SA, people were becoming incensed that we weren't finding a solution. It was a huge PR knock for the DA. I hope the next three months can be as amicable as possible, and wish her well."
Mazzone's Twitter bio says (among other things): "Bring. It. On."
Actually, she does like the sound of her own voice.
"We had a fantastic opera teacher who told me: 'You're OK but you will never be a prima soprano. Your voice goes off pitch, you are a bit too enthusiastic, undisciplined.' I was disappointed. Opera has always been a big part of my life. Growing up, I would refuse to eat my dinner until La Bohème was playing. But it doesn't stop me," she laughs.
"And we sing a lot in our family, at parties. I am not going to let the fact that I'm not as good as my brother or my father stop me."
Mazzone is referring to her father, the affable Fortunato Mazzone, 75, an immigrant restaurateur who ran the famous Ritrovo in Pretoria for 22 years. Her brother, the equally larger-than-life Forti, has a falsetto that echoes across the capital while he cooks.You would also not guess from Mazzone's fiery take-downs in parliament that the MP is a firm follower of the Dalai Lama and Buddhist philosophy. It might seem at odds with a typically boisterous Neapolitan family, but it began under the influence of her mother, Valerie, a vegetarian teetotaller who follows the Eastern Sant Mat philosophy.
"I believe in creating peace around me. I am grateful to have very liberal parents, in religion and in politics. We were allowed to follow our own paths."
After apartheid was abolished, her parents were advised to send her to family in Italy. "They said no, nothing bad is going to happen. My dad said: 'She's here to witness history.' Anyway, I love Naples, but I could never live there. Neapolitans are amazing people - you might think it's a fight but they are screaming at each other saying: 'I f**king love you!'"I ask if her religious philosophy is not at odds with a life in politics, particularly in SA. "I should hope that all political parties are in it to have a peaceful country, although it is a bit of a paradox to fight for peace."
Mazzone honed her debating skills at the Glen High School, where her headmaster encouraged political discussion and debate.
"I was allowed to not stand if the old national anthem was playing. The headmaster, Mr Anthony Wilcocks, was amazing. He asked me: 'Ms Mazzone, what are we going to study?' And my answer was: 'Politics, sir.'
"He put his arm around my shoulder and said: 'You better become an MP because I am backing you on this.'
"We grew up in a politically aware home. My parents are immigrants and we were fortunate to go on holiday to see our family in Europe. We would see things on TV that we weren't allowed to see here, the abominable things that were happening in SA.
"My first political rally was a Free Mandela march in London at Trafalgar Square. It is no joke, my mother says I was eight or nine when I told her I wanted to be a politician after I saw the passion and felt this unity around us."
Mazzone said she grew up with people questioning her patriotism because her parents were immigrants. "My sister, brother and I were born here. I think because we were 'new' South Africans is precisely why I am so fiercely patriotic."
She was a member of the Democratic Party (DP) at 19, inspired by Helen Suzman and Tony Leon, and headed the youth branch. And at 21, she was elected a city councillor in Pretoria.Climbing up the DA party ladder, in 2009 Mazzone was elected to parliament.
Today she is in the party's top echelons and the shadow minister of public enterprises.
"Parliament is hard work but great fun. People think you fight all the time but it is more than that. I saw an ANC colleague at the airport and she said: 'I've missed you, it's been a while.' And I thought, I did miss her, actually. We get used to seeing each other every day. Not everyone is going to like you, but that is life. Politics are no different. It isn't all doom and gloom and we have a bit of fun."
Like the time she and President Cyril Ramaphosa challenged each other to sing. "When he quoted Hugh Masekela's Thuma Mina everyone in parliament chanted 'Sing it!' but he declined. So when I quoted an Arno Carstens song, he told me to sing it. And I did," she laughs.
Back to business. I ask her what it's like working alongside, yet opposite, Pravin Gordhan, who is by far her senior?
"I am grateful that there is not any animosity, which was there with me and Minister Lynne Brown. I fundamentally disliked her because of what she was doing to the country.
"Now I am dealing with someone who fought state capture alongside me and my team. We have a healthy relationship. I have a great deal of respect for him. We can have a meeting and discuss things, but I can't ever bring myself to call him Pravin as he asks, it is 'Minister'. He has the hardest job in parliament yet he has an open-door policy, always willing to listen to ideas."Ideologically we are quite different, but not so different that we won't listen to each other. I will be helpful to move forward to fix things, especially with the state capture debates coming up."
She says the beliefs which encouraged her to choose the DA over the ANC as a student remain in today's politics.
"We differ on how we think the state organs should be run. The DA believes in semi-privatisation but the ANC does not. It is undeniable that Eskom cannot carry on in the same state. SAA . the model has to change. We are going to have some heated debates. That is always good."
Speaking of heated debates, Mazzone says she is still recovering from the burn of a recent Twitter war. After tweeting that her "father arrived from Naples in Italy, he was dark and could not speak English or Afrikaans, but he was a great chef. He built himself up from nothing to make a good life for his family. I HONOUR and thank my father," Mazzone and her family were inundated with "hate"."I regret that I was trying to explain myself on the wrong platform. I was trying to say I have accepted my white privilege but that my father's privilege was not the same as mine. I regret not explaining myself. People misunderstood it to mean that I had appropriated blackness.
"The lesson I learnt is that you can't have an emotive discussion in 280 characters. But I don't think we can be bullied into not telling our stories. I do understand what the grossness that was apartheid caused people, who can't begin to understand that I also have a story, only because of the atrocities that they were exposed to. I took the hatred I got as people venting their anger and I hope it helped them. It's OK."
She adds that while Twitter can help in sharing information, such as when signal jammers were used at the state of the nation address in 2015, it can be "absolutely toxic".
She says: "I feel like people's lives would be better if it didn't exist because it wasn't created to be a platform of hate, but it has become an anonymous echo chamber for hatred, and with the bots and fake news, you need to tune out to stay sane."
You can expect social media campaigns in the run- up to the 2019 election from a DA that has had to gather itself together in recent months. There has been reported infighting about the De Lille matter, privilege debates between DA leader Mmusi Maimane and members, even the party's stance on BEE, which Mazzone says are "blown out of proportion by the media" on occasion.
"We are a party that prides ourselves on having robust debate. If not debating, you are a bunch of sheep following each other around. A political party is like a family, you can have a spat but you are still family. I encourage robust debate. As a party we are always relooking our policies. The stories that sometimes get printed about 'massive divides' in meetings - I wonder if I was in the same meeting."The party, she says, may "differ here and there but more than ever we are united in one cause. The country is in trouble. Unemployment. Slow GDP. Violence. Femicide. Crime. We are about creating an open opportunity, free and fair, diverse society."
"Scripted spokesperson" or not, Mazzone is DA loud and proud.
"I look around my party and see women like Phumzile van Damme, Anchen Dreyer, Sonja Boshoff. Women are incredible. Since I joined the DP at 19, I've never once been discriminated against because I was a woman or told there is no space for me because I am a woman.
"I am woman, hear me roar."

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.