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Mbali Ntuli could help the DA reconstruct itself, but is the party ready for a black woman leader?

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Dr Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral scholar in gender justice, health and human development at Durban University of Technology.

If ever the Democratic Party needed invigorating new leadership, it is now. Mbali Ntuli offers the opportunity for the party to reconstruct itself. 

There are serious questions about whether the DA will recover from its ongoing troubles. Despite the leadership of John Steenhuisen, the party has a significant presence of right-wing zealots which, like Helen Zille, have moved from the SA liberal tradition once embodied by Helen Suzman towards a version of the libertarian wing of American alt-right politics.

Mbali Ntuli has entered the DA leadership race at a critical time in the DA’s history – when there is likely to be no black constituency for a right-leaning DA.

The recent draft policy document of the DA reads: “Individuals, when free to make their own decisions, will not be represented in any and every organisation, sector, or level of management according to a predetermined proportion. The DA, therefore, opposes race, gender and other quotas.” 

It is clear that we now have the race denialism of Helen Zille and DA policy head, Gwen Ngwenya, and their ridiculous fantasy that non-racialism is a liberal concept that they now embody.

Zille, Ngwenya and others in that camp engage in a form of race denialism that masks enduring racism and functions to legitimise ongoing white domination. It comforts the powerful and afflicts the oppressed.

In a country in which poverty is a deeply raced and gendered phenomenon; to pretend that race and gender is no longer a relevant consideration in policy-making and public discourse, is to implicitly endorse the status quo. It is clear that the party has collapsed into forms of reactionary politics.

In this regard, Zille will go down in history as the person who both extended the DA’s reach after Tony Leon’s time at the helm, and then, after her turn to the right, broke everything that she built. Time will tell, but she may go down in history as the person who finally broke the liberal tradition in South Africa, despite her courageous past.

So if ever the party needed refreshed leadership, it is now. Ntuli offers the opportunity for the DA to reconstruct itself. She has steadily risen through the DA ranks from baptism as a youth activist through to councillor, seasoned parliamentarian and senior party worker. Credit must go to her for fearlessly building the DA brand in Durban townships as well as in the northern reaches of the province closer to her St Lucia home base. The latter is a region the IFP considers its domain and one that the ANC also prizes.  

Ntuli worked her way into a deeply hostile and patriarchal environment there, frequently facing personal danger and she has lived to tell the tale. There must be something coded in her genes when it comes to the gangster swagger and signature fingernail art.

Her father, Big Ben Ntuli, was long considered the taxi boss of taxi bosses. His untimely demise shook up the young Ntuli. Then came the family intrigues for control of the taxi empire. It was a storyline straight out of a political thriller with charges of poisoning and the like. For Ntuli to survive both the taxi underworld and a nasty family feud, liberal politics sounds like walking a poodle. 

Her schooling is a training ground that the traditional DA cognoscenti dare not scoff at. She went to a posh girls’ school followed by the bastion of white liberalism at Rhodes University. She is not someone plucked out of the township with rough edges as some might want to paint her. Her entire makeup is that of a good South African success story of a raucous young black woman who has chosen an unconventional path in South African politics. 

It surely could not have been easy for her meandering the dizzy minefield of DA politics over the past decade especially. Unlike the fallen-from-grace Mmusi Maimane and embarrassingly eager Bongani Madikizela, she has held her own as a free-thinking, sometimes undisciplined spirit. 

At this moment in time, the DA could very well do much worse than Ntuli. That is not to say that there is not enough of a bright cadre to attend to its immediate dilemmas. John Steenhuisen for one is as bright as a button, but his clear shortcoming is that he cannot take the DA beyond hollering from the opposition benches. 

In his personal choices at volatile moments, Madikezela has hitched his wagon too close to the Zille runaway train headed to the cliff’s edge. Ntuli has the right kind of hunger to have a go at what is still the second prize in South African politics. A decade of building a challenge to the dominance of the ANC was wasted by Zille and Maimane in the main. 

Ntuli represents the kind of steady momentum that could spring a few surprises, come the election after next. Whether the DA grandees, funders or rank and file are ready for a youthful, testy black woman remains to be seen. DM

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