Cape Town - Handing flowers to the queen of England at the age of six and dreaming of “helping people like Elizabeth did”, Mbali Ntuli began her path in life with good intentions.
But for the next 10 years her plans were almost derailed when she found herself at the centre of a violent feud as her family wrestled for control of her late father’s taxi business.
The multibillion-rand minibus taxi industry is characterised by shootings and in-fighting.
And the people who survive are grizzled veterans, shaped and scarred by a volatile but lucrative industry.
For Ntuli, who grew up at the heart of the trade in KwaZulu-Natal, it is an industry that has given her strength and fierceness.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” the DA Youth leader says, chatting over a glass of white wine.
The 26-year-old has been at the forefront of the party’s youth programme, spearheading initiatives in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Her rise through the DA’s ranks hasn’t gone unnoticed, with the media dubbing her one of 200 Young People to Watch.
Ntuli acknowledges challenges lie ahead, but says she is ready.
In the journey to get here, she has been poisoned, shot at and fought off hijackers – what more could a “couple of toxic politicians do”?
“Bring it on,” she laughs. “Do your worst.”
Her story begins in the fairly wealthy neighbourhood of La Lucia. Growing up, she admits life was good. With her dad at the helm of one of the province’s biggest taxi associations, there was a lot of money pouring in.
She was largely sheltered from the industry’s uglier side, but Ntuli says she was a handful at school.
“I was naughty. You know, that child challenging the teacher in class all the time? But it was something my family encouraged, and it was always brought out of me.
“I only ever had two detentions, though. All the teachers liked me – you need to have people in the right places… good connections.”
The politics of the playground and classroom was in many ways her first foray into the sphere that she now inhabits. But it was her brief encounter with Queen Elizabeth that cemented her path in life.
“She was here in 1995 and I gave her flowers. Yeah, I gave flowers to the queen, how badass is that? I always thought I would go into some form of social entrepreneurship.
“After her little visit I asked my mom what Elizabeth did. Hearing how she helped people really got the ball rolling for me.”
It seemed everything was set.
That was until her father died in exile, when Ntuli was eight.
It sparked the beginning of a violent family feud as uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers and cousins vied for control of her dad’s lucrative taxi business.
“Me and my brother were poisoned by my grandmother. I’m not kidding,” she says. “I recovered, but my brother was sick for almost five years.”
After being shot at in three attempted “hits”, Ntuli’s mother – who was now in the business – decided to send her children to boarding schools in Pietermaritzburg.
Ntuli attended Wykeham Collegiate where, despite her turbulent childhood, she decided to knuckle down and focus on her studies, taking part in as many activities as she could, while a set of bodyguards followed her around the school grounds.
Her fierceness remained, but she discovered a degree of diplomacy that allowed her to straddle the line, being a playground rebel while wearing the badge of head girl.
Later she realised her dream of studying politics when she was accepted by Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.
From there she joined the 2008 stream of the DA’s fledgling youth organisation.
“And now I’m second in line to sit in Kwazulu-Natal’s cabinet.”
Ntuli has big things planned for her party.
For Ntuli, who has established a taxi business and events company because “when politicians have nothing else to do they become corrupt”, being the youth leader is just the start. “I want to be a fighter,” she says. “Right now I feel stifled. I need to challenge for higher positions in this party, where I can say things without backlash from the more conservative members. Being blunt and honest is my thing.”
It’s for this reason she admires politicians such as outgoing Western Cape MEC for Transport and Public Works Robin Carlisle and the DA’s parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko. “They say what’s on their mind and we need that. We need people to challenge the status quo.
“Obviously I believe strongly in what the DA is doing, but we need to show South Africa that we are not lemmings, that every individual member will fight for what they believe in.
“This is a democracy, after all.”