Over the past few weeks, the DA’s John Steenhuisen has been a ubiquitous presence in the media: publishing op-eds, authoring statements on matters of national import, and joining a march against gender-based violence.
Following the sudden departure of DA leader Mmusi Maimane, Steenhuisen — the party’s parliamentary leader — has stepped into the gap.
And bar a “massive cock-up”, as one insider put it, Steenhuisen looks almost certain to be formally handed the party leadership on Sunday 17 November when the DA’s federal council meets to vote on an interim leader.
The man known by party members in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal as “Johnny Chief Whip” — a reference to the role played by Steenhuisen in recent Parliaments — enjoys a number of advantages over his only rival, Gauteng MPL Makashule Gana.
As the incumbent in an existing leadership role, Steenhuisen has been able to marshal the party machinery to get his name and views in public over the past month far more effectively than Gana.
Steenhuisen’s role in the DA caucus in Parliament has also meant that he has attained far greater “brand recognition” than Gana, who moved from the National Assembly to the Gauteng provincial legislature. Although well respected, Gana cannot be considered a household name.
This alone, a DA insider told Daily Maverick, is likely to ensure a victory for Steenhuisen.
“The single biggest reason many would be voting for John is because of his national profile,” the insider said.
“He has found himself in the enviable position of being basically the biggest name left in the organisation”.
This follows the exit of not just Maimane, but also Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and former DA federal chair Athol Trollip, who might otherwise have been likely contenders for the role.
Steenhuisen is also seen as someone who will be able to steady the DA’s currently rocky ship until the party meets for a full national congress in April 2020.
A victory for Steenhuisen on Sunday would mean victory for the party’s “liberal” faction. In radio interviews this week, Steenhuisen has argued against race-based policies like BEE and suggested that South African society has “become far too obsessed with race”.
Gana has staked his campaign on the opposite approach. In a letter sent to party members, Gana argued that the DA’s insistence on “a brand of politics that strains to emphasise that race does not matter” is fundamentally at odds with its simultaneous recognition that “in order to win elections, it has to have black leadership”.
The DA insider told Daily Maverick: “It is fair to assume that a large share of voting preferences will be along racial lines.”
Both Gana and Steenhuisen have run respectful campaigns without focusing on their rival’s weaknesses. DA national spokesperson Solly Malatsi says this has been particularly welcome at this difficult period for the party.
“The candidates have all behaved in line with what the organisation expects,” Malatsi told Daily Maverick, adding that there were no instances of problematic campaign behaviour that the party was concerned about.
Only the 160 members of the party’s federal council will decide on the DA’s interim leadership on Sunday, making the race substantially different in character from that which will play out at the much larger national congress in April 2020.
The insider noted, however, that if Steenhuisen secures the interim leadership, “he’s going to be almost unbeatable at congress”.
The interim leadership contest originally saw three contenders throw their hats in the ring, with Gana and Steenhuisen joined by Western Cape provincial leader Bonginkosi Madikizela. This week Madikizela pulled out of the race, citing competing demands on his time.
Daily Maverick understands, however, that Madikizela would have been highly unlikely to garner enough votes from the federal council to render him a significant contender.
There has also been speculation elsewhere that Madikizela was asked to pull out of the contest on the basis that he and Steenhuisen share the same support base and his presence on the ballot would split votes. Madikizela, who is known to be a staunch ally of DA federal council chair Helen Zille, has allegedly been promised support instead for a 2020 leadership bid.
It is Zille who will be chairing Sunday’s proceedings, following her controversial return to the party. Although Zille promised, upon taking up the position, to “stay in her lane” and play only a background role, insiders say that the current DA leadership vacuum has meant that she has been prominently “hands on” over the past three weeks.
DA insiders told Daily Maverick that of the two candidates, Steenhuisen was the more likely to enjoy a harmonious working relationship with Zille. One predicted, however:
“They are going to have a massive clash in future… just due to how [Zille] operates.”
Also up for grabs on Sunday is the important role of the DA’s federal chairperson: a position previously filled by Athol Trollip.
The frontrunner for that post is Western Cape agriculture MEC Ivan Meyer, who has previously held roles in the DA’s decision-making structures and is seen as another safe pair of hands to steer the DA towards the April 2020 congress. DM
The Hindenburg had a smoking room.