A 22-year-old kung-fu exponent with a taste for collecting “random useless information” is rapidly emerging as one of the driving forces in the Democratic Alliance (DA) in KwaZulu-Natal.
Mbali Ntuli, who was elected as the DA Youth federal chairperson in July, is one of a crop of new DA leaders tasked with taking the party beyond its traditional white and suburban constituency and growing its support base among young and black voters.
Ntuli’s work and that of her youthful colleagues might go some way towards achieving this aim.
Last year DASO – the DA’s student wing – had a presence only at UKZN, UCT and Wits.
A few months later, they have spread their influence to eight more campuses, taking the majority of SRC seats at Rhodes and creating functioning branches at the most unlikely institutions, including Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban’s Umlazi township.
They are also set to play a leading role in the party’s campaign for next year’s local government elections – their aim is to make the drive “cheekier and sexier without disrespecting the DA brand” – after making a highly successful presentation on the campaign to the DA’s federal council meeting in Durban last weekend.
A Rhodes University graduate and member of the South African national debating team, Ntuli is visibly thrilled by the response of the DA’s national leadership to their ideas.
“I addressed the federal council on how the DA Youth were going to be assimilated into the broader political strategy of the DA.
In the report we looked at how the party had hit a ceiling in terms of traditional DA voters and how we now needed to move into new markets.
“One is the black market, but the other is the youth market, which makes up almost 70% of the population.
We reported on research on the best way to move into the youth and black markets, and how to get the youth vote out in the coming 2011 local government elections,” Ntuli says.
“It was very well received and there is enthusiasm and support for our ideas from the leadership.
“The follow-up research starts this week.”
If Ntuli and her colleagues get their way, the DA Youth will be “everywhere” during the election campaign, rolling out a “funkier, more youthful and cheekier” drive for voters’ hearts and minds, both on campuses and on the streets.
“We’ve run very successful campaigns at varsities which have been in-your-face; the kind of stuff that young people respond to, and hopefully we’ll be given the leeway to run similar campaigns at provincial and national level.
“The DA is a well-established brand and we don’t want to come across as disrespectful, but we need to get a bit more cheeky and sex things up a bit.”
Ntuli, the daughter of the late KwaZulu-Natal taxi boss, Big Ben Ntuli, is a graduate of the DA’s young leaders programme who has applied to join the party’s cadre of councillors-elect to contest next year’s poll.
“I’m particularly interested in local government and believe we have a lot of work to do, particularly here in Durban,” she says.
As federal youth chair, Ntuli is responsible for setting up youth branches and co-ordinating their work around the country.
She is also credited with establishing effective DA structures in the north Durban townships of Lindelani, where party leader Helen Zille was greeted with enthusiasm last weekend, and KwaMashu.
Ntuli says that despite public perceptions, the DA has no “glass ceiling” for black leaders.
“Right now there are people from all race groups at the most senior levels of the party.
“I have certainly not felt any vibe of there being a glass ceiling for anyone. This is politics and securing your trajectory is about working hard, building your profile and securing your trajectory to the top,” she says.
Ntuli is still not sure whether politics will be her long-term career.
“I originally thought I would end up in NGO work, but I’m really enjoying what I do now.
I don’t know if I’ll be in politics forever.
If I do a good enough job I may have quite a long trajectory.
There’s still a lot to learn: I’m 22 and I know nothing, really,” she says.
“I believe that where I am allows me to do some good, to be part of creating a legacy which will benefit people.”
Ntuli views the abusive side of politics and South Africans’ obsession with race as being the downside of the game.
“People are not willing to take you on on the basis of what you believe and what you stand for.
“They will say ‘you’re a coconut’ rather than respond on an ideological basis – which is crap and utterly boring, dealing with issues only in terms of race and also gender.
“I hear stories about how I am stripping for the male cabinet in Cape Town from people who seem to think that my race should determine which political party I affiliate myself with.”
As serious-minded as Ntuli is, she is still a young woman with a well-developed sense of fun.
“I’m into all kinds of music, history, popular culture, movies and archaeology. When I’m interested in something, I go to great lengths to find out a lot about it.
“I generally want to know a bit about everything.”