Ntuli’s decision to join the party’s leadership contest is timely. She has the credentials to help it return to its liberal roots, writes Imraan Baccus.
There are serious questions about whether the DA will recover.
Despite the leadership of John Steenhuisen, the DA has a significant presence of right-wing zealots who, like Helen Zille, have decisively moved from the South African liberal tradition embodied by Helen Suzman, towards a version of the libertarian wing of American alt-right politics.
Mbali Ntuli has entered the leadership race at a critical time in the DA’s history.
She joins 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 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 legitimate 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 are no longer relevant considerations in policymaking 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, destroyed everything that she built.
Time will tell, but she may go down 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 its 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 KwaZulu-Natal province closer to her St Lucia home base.
The latter is a region the Inkatha Freedom Party considers its domain and one that the ANC also prizes.
Ntuli worked her way into a deeply hostile and patriarchal environment, frequently facing personal danger.
There must be something coded in her genes when it comes to the gangster swagger and signature nail art.
Her father Big Ben Ntuli was considered the boss of taxi bosses.
His untimely demise shook up the young Mbali. Then came the family feud for control of his taxi empire.
It was a storyline straight out of a political thriller – complete with charges of poisoning.
For Ntuli, having survived both the taxi underworld and a nasty family feud, liberal politics sound like walking a poodle.
Her schooling was 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 – Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.
So 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 streetwise young black woman who has chosen an unconventional path into 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, Ntuli has held her own as a freethinking, 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 are not enough bright cadres to attend to its immediate dilemmas.
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, Madikizela 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 next elections.
Whether the DA grandees, funders or rank and file are ready for a youthful, savvy black woman remains to be seen.
Baccus is a senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in at the University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal’s School of Social Sciences and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation
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