Youngest MPL keen to stir the pot – loudly
One morning in mid-March, Katlego Phala was sitting in her grandmother’s lounge, worrying about her party’s election posters. She tapped her pen on a piece of paper and played idly with her cellphone, looking at it every few minutes. “We’re behind,” she said.
The plan was to leave the house at about eight that morning to hang Democratic Alliance posters in Mankweng and surrounding rural areas in Limpopo, where she was running for the provincial legislature. But the clock had crept past 10am and the driver of the bakkie she had hired was not answering his phone.
“Sometimes I do get a little nervous. I ask myself: Am I normal? I look at my friends. They don’t care much; they are not as involved as I am in politics.” Her phone rang, stopping our conversation. After a quick exchange she hung up. “They’re on their way,” she said, with a dramatic sigh.
Next week, Phala (22) will be sworn in as a member of the provincial legislature (MPL) – the youngest in the country. “Being a Mandela-generation youth, I want to make sure that other generations inherit a country that is well governed,” she said.
Young people are often disillusioned by poor service delivery and corruption, she said: “Not much is coming their way.”
Change of interest
Phala’s interest in politics began just two years ago. “I didn’t even have politics in mind, to be honest,” she said.
She had finished matric and spent some time modelling and acting, but she couldn’t afford to travel to Johannesburg to pursue more work. So she enrolled to study public relations management.
She saw tar roads falling into disrepair, RDP houses without electricity and poor street lighting. “I noticed that the township that I grew up in was not the township that it used to be,” she says.
Phala joined the DA and was soon an activist, opening a party branch and holding meetings in her grandmother’s sitting room. She attended the 2013 Limpopo provincial youth parliament, where she asked for someone to be held accountable for failed textbook delivery in Limpopo.
When one speaker took offence at her remarks, she was told to withdraw her request. “From that moment I felt that I’m doing the right thing,” she said. “My voice is heavy enough and loud enough to make a difference.”
Phala then enrolled in the DA’s potential candidate programme, a six-month crash course in South African politics and history, as well as MPL responsibilities.
In June last year, while still attending the programme, she applied to run for an MPL position. Within three months she was sitting in front of a panel of Limpopo residents, explaining her views and how she’d approach local issues. A month later, in November, she was speaking to members of the DA’s provincial and national leadership. Soon after, this young woman – still living on her grandmother’s pension – was third on the DA’s candidate list for the Limpopo legislature.
Despite being the country’s youngest MPL, Phala hopes she will not be known purely for her age. “My age will play a huge role,” she said. “A lot of people, realistically, are sceptical.” She’s been criticised on social media for her relative inexperience, and has often drawn surprise from residents when she told them she was a candidate for the provincial legislature.
Not all were negative. Leticia Machete, a DA member who worked with Phala during the election campaign, remembers her ability to communicate with voters. Machete said she wishes she could go back to her youthful days, to be 22 again.
Phala wants to focus her energy on the issues of women, children and people with disabilities.
“Those are voices that are not heard, especially among the youth. I think they’re more scared to come out and look for help.”