DA’s Mbali Ntuli gets ready to rumble
Mbali Ntuli’s call for a series of debates with John Steenhuisen — a ‘Rumble in DA Jungle’ — ahead of the party’s leadership contest is smart politics. Her appeal for kindness is more so
They’re billing it "The Rumble in DA Jungle", a four-match, winner-takes-all showdown. In the blue corner, the party’s interim leader, John "I squeak for you" Steenhuisen; in the other blue corner, the new kid on the block, Mbali "Kill them with kindness" Ntuli.
Well, by "they", I mean some guy on Twitter called Anton and a few of his friends. The actual hashtag, disappointingly, is #MbaliVsJohn, which we can all agree is hardly up to WWE standards.
Ntuli’s call to arms on social media is accompanied by a cunningly wrought graphic. It shows a beaming Ntuli, all glowing cheekbones and happy smile, intelligent eyes staring directly into your soul, alongside a hangdog Steenhuisen with furrowed brow, staring with pallid trepidation at something off camera, presumably Helen Zille shaking her head pityingly.
It’s a masterful piece of visual propaganda, and gives one hope that the DA might finally have found a politician from the 21st century with the digital nous to connect with a digitally savvy voter base that’s been alienated by the clumsy social media shenanigans of Zille and her fleshbots.
The original Rumble in the Jungle (a moniker coined by boxing legend Muhammad Ali), for those not acquainted with what used to be referred to, inexplicably, as the gentlemanly art of fisticuffs, took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), in 1974. It pitted Ali against the then reigning heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman.
Ali was the underdog, widely expected to lose to the fitter Foreman, and it’s worth remembering that he’d made some political sacrifices that had cost his boxing career dearly. In 1967, he forfeited his heavyweight championship by refusing to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam war.
Nobody gave Ali much chance against Foreman, in much the same way that many commentators aren’t giving Ntuli much chance against Steenhuisen.
But even those not interested in boxing will be able to guess that Ali ended up winning the Rumble in the Jungle, so who knows — perhaps we’ll be seeing a John Steenhuisen Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Braaiing Machine in the DA’s future.
Instead of being part of the shrill #VoetsekANC opportunists in her party, Ntuli is showing undecided voters that there is a way to move from outrage to hope,
and from anger to kindness
You could see Ntuli’s strategy as a version of Ali’s famous rope-a-dope tactic, described as a strategy "in which one contender lets their opponent fatigue themself by drawing noninjuring offensive punches. This then gives the contender an advantage as the opponent becomes tired, allowing the contender to execute devastating offensive manoeuvres and thereby win."
Ntuli has waited while Steenhuisen and co have effectively alienated the middle ground of DA voters in a weirdly quixotic attempt to tilt at the windmill of Covid-19 government oppression they’ve imagined or, in several cases, correctly identified but entirely misjudged.
Now that the populist ravings of the DA’s social media league, a weird amalgam of the EFF and the Freedom Front Plus that I’ve taken to calling the Freedom Front Minus, have driven away the less auto-outraged of their online voter base, her message seems to resonate.
On her social media graphic teasing the Rumble in DA Jungle, Ntuli lists the pillars of her "A New Way" campaign: "kind, strong, fair". It’s a startling contrast to the angry "Voetsek ANC" hashtags that some DA councillors are appending to their enraged tweets.
When Ntuli received a tweet accusing her of being too nice and telling her: "This is why you are not going to win this election. You don’t have a killer instinct. If the tables were turned John [Steenhuisen] and Helen [Zille] would have come for you ruthlessly," her reply was measured. "Well, I don’t want to be like that. My entire offer is that we can have a politics that doesn’t centre on being vindictive, self-absorbed and petulant. I’ve done quite well by being nice to people and a team player, and by helping others reach their potential. Maybe I won’t win, but I still win."
Which is not to infer that Ntuli is a pushover. Her question to Steenhuisen on June 23 was pretty pointed. "Helen [Zille] should be thanked for her service and retire now, no?" But it’s clearly something she’s thought carefully about, and she appears to have decided to campaign on a platform of inclusiveness. Or, as she puts it: "We need to ensure that our party is a party where everyone feels that they belong, they are included and that they are meaningfully represented."
Ntuli has quoted New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who said: "One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, I’m weak.
"I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong."
Ntuli has also quoted that other voice of quiet (OK, quietish) reason in the DA, Phumzile van Damme — the DA’s shadow minister for sea views, as Zille nastily pointed out recently — who wrote: "I have found that being a public rep is less about what you say and more about how you say it. Tone matters. Perception matters. Kindness matters. Empathy matters. This is of course something you cannot fake. When people show you who they are, believe them."
The idea that you care for all voters, and not just DA voters, is refreshing. Even better is the notion that you can have a party that stands for something, rather than one that stands against the ANC.
Not that the DA as a party is entirely guilty of this, of course. It just seems to be the part of the strategy that the bobbleheads on social media are pushing at the moment.
And what is also refreshing, best of all, is the concept of a party that has politicians who value honest kindness for kindness’ sake. The contrast between this and a picture of communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams handing a food parcel to a man kneeling in the dirt in front of her is stark. (The picture turned out to be an old one, and framed especially to discredit Ndabeni-Abrahams, but it still worked as a political opportunity.)
It’s also instructive to read the Twitter bios of Ntuli and Steenhuisen side by side.
Steenhuisen’s is perky, and includes both a folksy misuse of apostrophe and that dead giveaway of insincerity, the arbitrary and unnecessary exclamation mark. It lists a bunch of roles, and a de rigueur passion for SA that reads as rote. "@Our_DA. Federal Leader, Leader of the Official Opposition: Parliament of RSA. Constitution loving liberal, passionate about RSA and it’s future!"
Ntuli’s, by contrast, seems human, even though she claims to be a robot. "Politician. Mandela-Washington Fellow. Brought up by TV. Former Ninja. Lover of comics, video games & cute stuff. Robot from the year 2050. Humanist."
Whether Ntuli’s rope-a-dope will work is uncertain. Also uncertain is whether the Rumble in DA Jungle debates will ever take place, or whether it’s just a political move by Ntuli to turn the tables on the debate-me-bro ethos of the current DA back-seat trolls.
What is certain, though, is that this is a damned clever way to take advantage of the groundswell of dislike for many ANC politicians. Instead of being part of the shrill #VoetsekANC opportunists in her party, who are just driving away people who prefer thought to bile, Ntuli is showing undecided voters that there is a way to move from outrage to hope, and from anger to kindness. Which is not to say that we should necessarily buy into this narrative, which the cynics among us (basically every single voter, by this stage) will view as just another political stratagem.
Kindness is not necessarily kind if it’s used as a Band-Aid in lieu of necessary surgery. But still — this could be a welcome sea change in the prevailing political currents.
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