The Young Leader Challenging South Africa's Racial Boundaries

Why you should care

Because she could eventually take down the only ruling party democratic South Africa has ever known.

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When Gwen Ngwenya served as president of the Student Representative Council at the University of Cape Town, the hot topic of the day was the university’s race-based admissions policy, which, many argued, should be racialized even further. Ngwenya, representing the Democratic Alliance Students’ Organization (DASO, the DA is South Africa’s official opposition) disagreed strongly. So she “pretty much single-handedly” drafted an alternative admissions policy based on a basket of socioeconomic factors that “with a few tweaks” remains the university’s official policy, says Geordin Hill-Lewis — a colleague at DASO back in 2011 and a fellow DA member of parliament today.

Now 29 and a fully fledged MP, Ngwenya is charged with putting together an irresistible proposition for voters ahead of the 2019 presidential elections as the DA’s first head of policy. Quite a responsibility, considering 2019 represents the first time in democratic South Africa that any party besides the African National Congress (ANC) has even an outside chance of winning.

As early as her teenage years, Ngwenya “just knew” she was a liberal who believed in the importance of individual rights. The best groups, she says, are ones where members are free to join, free to leave and free to decide what the group stands for. Some groups — those demarcated along racial or gender lines, for example — are “the exact opposite” as they are generally “ruled by a hegemonic elite.” It’s always riled her when “someone stands up and says, ‘Black people feel this …’ or ‘Women want that …’ ”

The ANC, she says matter-of-factly, is not the kind of group she agrees with.

I’m a tad disappointed in myself for getting back into politics so young.

Gwen Ngwenya

When we meet at Ngwenya’s parliamentary chambers in Cape Town, she fills two hours with clued-up, considered and strident argument. Case in point: the ANC’s commitment to “the economically mad idea” of land expropriation without compensation, which she says is “an absolute scapegoat for the ANC’s failures since 1994,” citing mismanagement, corruption and incompetence as the true obstacles to economic transformation.

What you see with Ngwenya, say both Hill-Lewis and Frans Cronjé, her former boss at leading think tank the Institute of Race Relations, is most certainly what you get. “She’s an intimidating person, extraordinary … once-in-a-lifetime,” says Cronjé. “She could be making millions — why not do that?”

As Ngwenya was growing up in Durban, both her parents taught in the townships, but she was educated at former Whites-only schools. Mom and dad were “supportive of any direction [she] took” and she soon found her niche on the school debating team, an activity she would recommend to anyone, no matter their age. Debating “gives you core skills to look at the world differently, to be skeptical about received wisdom, to be generous to the opposition,” she says, before wishing out loud that more South African parliamentarians had debating backgrounds.

After high school, she relocated to the University of Cape Town on a medical scholarship. Realizing the white coat wasn’t for her, she swapped to a broad social sciences degree and hasn’t looked back. Her success in student politics made a career in politics seem almost inevitable … until, as the end of her degree loomed, she started to have second thoughts. “I realized I didn’t take many career politicians seriously,” she says, and thus she vowed only to enter politics when she had some real-world experience to contribute. “I’m a tad disappointed in myself for getting back into politics so young,” she admits.

But young doesn’t mean inexperienced. After graduating, Ngwenya moved to France to teach English. Within a few months, she was getting a master’s in economics at a Paris university despite having only a couple of economics credits to her name. Her thesis on monopolies and cartelization took her to India, where she was able to combine her studies with a job as an economic researcher. Despite adoring her job and the field of competition economics, Ngwenya did not take to New Delhi and the “Eat, Pray, Love existence” of her German housemates.

So, she accepted a financial analyst job offer from Bloomberg in London, which landed in her inbox at just the right time, and continued to live the dream. After only a year in London, she was transferred (kicking and screaming) back to South Africa. There, a chance encounter with old acquaintance Cronjé of the IRR (he’d long been a fan of her alternative admissions policy at UCT) resulted in another career move.

Cronjé — who soon made Ngwenya his second-in-command — lauds her “huge, deep-seated” commitment to making life better for poor South Africans. Not to mention the “determination and bravery” to stand up for what she believes is “right and good” regardless of societal pressures. “She put me in my place a few times,” he recalls. “I quite enjoyed that.”

In March, after two years at the IRR, Hill-Lewis and the DA came calling with an offer Ngwenya couldn’t refuse. While she was reluctant to lift the lid on the five key points (“I am not the policy czar”) she and her colleagues will focus on in the 2019 campaign, Hill-Lewis says it is “absolutely guaranteed that the DA’s policy will be stronger and better articulated” than ever before. That said, her ascent was controversial within the DA, South Africa’s liberal party, as Johannesberg’s City Press reported grumblings from fellow party members that she was appointed to put a “Black face” on a conservative agenda. She told the paper in reply: “They’re struggling to put me in a box, but it’s amusing to watch people try.”

While both Hill-Lewis and Cronjé believe Ngwenya could ultimately rise all the way to the presidency, her politicking skills could use some work. “She does not suffer fools at all,” says Hill-Lewis. “And unfortunately that is a weakness in politics.” What’s more, her commitment to always saying what she believes will, in Cronjé’s estimation, “cause all manner of problems in her political career.”

By her own admission, Ngwenya has “no interest in dancing around” (South African rallies are jovial affairs) or “kissing babies.” But if a time comes when South Africa needs a leader who’s more comfortable “in a boardroom,” she would gladly step up to the plate. If such a time doesn’t come, she’ll “be happy to remain behind the scenes.”

She adds, “I have no interest in being anything other than who I am.”

And why should she?

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