Mbali Ntuli: 'In politics, our professionalism is tied into the way we dress'
During physical education class, 10-year-old Mbali Ntuli would be given a head start during races and she would be cautioned about climbing trees and playing as rough as her classmates. Ntuli was the only girl in her Grade 5 class. This “special treatment” was one of her first experiences of life as a girl, one who would later become a very influential woman.
“I stopped trying to be like the boys and used the special treatment to my advantage.
I hated being treated differently because I was a girl, but I didn’t mind if it meant that I could get what I want. I figured it was smart to use it to my advantage. I would get a head start, and I would use that to win races until they stopped giving it to me. I think I taught those boys that particular lesson about sexism,” Ntuli recalls.
Until this day, the 28-year-old politician still experiences life through a gendered angle, particularly in the political field, which remains largely male-dominated and patriarchal.
From earlier on in her political career, Ntuli made it a point not to shy away from expressing a feminine side, even when it is not appreciated or even used against her. She recalls incidents when she has been told not to dress a certain way to ensure that men concentrate on her political knowledge and not her physical attributes. Senior female politicians would warn Ntuli about how she chooses to dress, saying that male politicians will get the “wrong idea” if she is not careful.
“They think they are protecting me from the male gaze, because they have experienced this kind of sexism. But I like challenging the status quo because Mbali can be in a nightclub over the weekend and still excel at her duties as a parliamentarian,” she adds.
But in a world that constantly dichotomises women, Ntuli has found herself frustrated at the rife sexism that women politicians are subjected to. She came to learn this in November 2015 after she posted a picture of herself in a bikini. Some condemned Ntuli, saying it was “inappropriate” to post the picture on her personal Facebook account.
“Nobody wants to be misunderstood. But in politics women are often misunderstood, our professionalism is tied into the way we choose to dress and what we do in our personal lives. It is very archaic.”
Ntuli’s first taste of leadership came decades before entering the world of politics. She was only in junior school when she became the library monitor at her school – a position she pursued so that she could have some kind of power.
“All I wanted was power to do good. I wanted to decide who could get which books and when, because many times the interesting books were reserved for certain learners. That was not fair and the only way to change it was to have power.”
Known for speaking truth to power, even in her own political camp, Ntuli has been singled out as one of the most promising young politicians in this country. She rose to prominence as the DA’s national youth leader and returned to her home province of KwaZulu-Natal in 2014 to serve as a member of the provincial legislature and the DA leader in the Mkhanyakude district.
The party’s youth wing has been in a shambles since Ntuli’s departure as the leader in August 2014. The last youth congress was held in May 2013, and according to the DA’s constitution a youth congress must be held every two years. Since her departure, it seems the youth wing has disintegrated and has not been publicly functional since her departure.
In January Yusuf Cassim, DA interim youth leader, told the Mail & Guardian that the focus was on local government elections and once that is over the youth wing will be given more attention.
Ntuli’s departure from her post as youth leader came after she and then DA leader Helen Zille had a public fallout. Zille called Ntuli a “princess” and “prima donna”-
“By now everybody seems to know what happened in that meeting. For me it was that I didn’t think Helen would have called a man that. I found it sexist and lost my cool,” she says when pressed on what happened.
Ntuli believes that Zille undoubtedly faced challenges as a young woman reporter in newsrooms, or when she first entered politics, but she is unsettled by the manner in which Zille tweets about gender issues.
“I have had some moments where I have, like others on Twitter, been surprised by her positions on some gender-related issues, but to be fair I have never engaged her on her gender politics. I’m looking forward to reading Helen’s book where she said she would explain what ‘gurrl feminism’ means.”
Although she is mostly known for her involvement in the political playground, Ntuli is also involved in the taxi industry. She owns two taxis and her family is still involved in the industry in KwaZulu-Natal, where her father the late Big Ben Ntuli was the taxi association’s founder.
There is still a lot to be done to make politics more inclusive of women, Ntuli believes, but most of the work should start in the various political parties. All women have the responsibility to fight sexism, even if it’s in their own party.
“Many women end up being compliant by omission to sexism, because it is not easy to challenge your political leaders — especially if you don’t have political capital.”