Nicole Graham throws her hat in the ring for DA KZN leader and says she’s not too young or too white
Durban - At 21 years old she was one of the youngest people to be elected as a councillor for the DA in the eThekwini Municipality. When she was 28, she was one of the youngest people to take the reigns of the party’s leadership in the city.
Now at just 31, Nicole Graham has plans to become the youngest ever leader of the DA in KwaZulu-Natal.
This week, she threw her hat in the ring for the provincial leadership where she will square up with veteran DA MPL Francois Rodgers and fellow eThekwini councillor Emmanuel Mhlongo on March 27.
The position has been made vacant by the departure of Zwakele Mncwango, who decided not to seek a third term as provincial leader.
Having announced her candidacy on Monday, party insiders say that Graham already had the edge over her rivals.
Needing about 580 votes from delegates across the province, insiders say the high profile nature of her job as the eThekwini leader gives her a political megaphone as she takes on the ANC in the biggest metro on KwaZulu-Natal.
In addition to having the support of most of the KZN south and north districts, which contribute more than 45% of the delegate vote, DA insiders say Graham has the silent backing of DA Federal chairperson Helen Zille and party leader John Steenhuisen.
Her critics believe she may be too young for the position and too white, especially in a province where more than 80% of the population is black and many live in rural areas.
They point to the fact that under Mnwango, the DA was able to grow its support base in the black community especially in the rural areas and believe that this is where Graham will fall short.
But Graham does not agree and says her experience in local government is what makes her ready to assume the party’s leadership in the province.
“I have an immense wealth of knowledge in local governments and in fighting battles that matter. And in building teams and equipping teams, which I think are all things that could benefit the DA in the province,” she said.
Graham was introduced to politics while in high school on the Bluff, south of Durban, where she grew up. She joined the DA while in Grade 12 and worked her way through the party, first as the secretary of her branch, then a member of the SRC at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as part of the DA Student Organisation, and by the time she was 21 as councillor for the Bluff, after “applying on a whim”.
She said that if she was elected leader, she planned to continue to stay as a councillor in Durban and not move to the KZN Legislature in Pietermaritzburg like other DA leaders have in the past, as she feels her work is not done.
“At eThekwini we work in really difficult conditions. And I think I have shown in that space that I am not afraid to fight for the things that matter, I can build capable teams of people and I have the work ethic and the commitment to get things done. So I don't consider it to be a finished job. I think there's a lot more I want to do.”
But Graham, like the DA, faces an uphill battle with the electorate, many of whom perceive the party as too white.
The purge of senior black leaders Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba and Patricia De Lille has added to the trust deficit.
Graham is quick to fend off claims that if she is elected the party will be seen as too white and that black voters will turn away.
“We underestimate voters when we categorise black voters as one thing, Indian voters as another thing and coloured voters this thing, and so on. At the end of the day voters want people who understand their issues, and who will fight for their issues, and I have seen over my tenure at eThekwkini that my base, or my support among people of all races has grown, when we focus on the issues that matter to them when we focus on dirt and transport and we focus on economic development. I don't think you need to be of a particular race to fight for that or to fight for another race,” she said.
So how will she attract the rural vote?
“My plan is, is to have a good working relationship with the caucuses and constituencies around the province, and to make sure that they are as skilled and as competitive as possible. You know leadership is not about one person, and don't want to be the be-all and end-all. We have great councillors and great representation around the province. It's about how we build that team that can appeal to everyone in different ways,” she said.