South Africa

ANALYSIS

DA Federal Congress shows two faces of one party

Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images/Ziyaad Douglas)

The majority of DA delegates have pinned their hopes on new leader John Steenhuisen when it comes to the future of the party. But what the DA Federal Congress made clear is that there are two very different sides to the party.

Smaller government, lower taxes, restrictions on unions. These are positions espoused by new DA leader John Steenhuisen and his supporters during the 2020 DA Federal Congress.

These are positions that are closer to the (US) Republicans, not the Democrats; the (UK) Tories, not Labour.

Yet within the party led by Steenhuisen are younger people pushing for the “wokest” of policy positions.

At the congress, younger delegates put forward resolutions calling for the special prevention of LGBTQIA+ hate crimes, making gay conversion therapy illegal, the implementation of rent control in DA metros, the establishment of “ecocide” as a crime against humanity, the outlawing of zoos, and more.

These proposed resolutions sit rather uneasily next to those calling for the weakening of collective bargaining and the reduction of taxation.

By the end of the weekend, the impression was that the young wokes within the party are indulged – up to a point. That point is where these progressive proposals touch on the free market economy, at which point they must be smacked down.

This was very evident from a look at the resolutions which passed and failed at the congress. Protecting gay rights? Sure, no sweat. Outlawing stuff to do with hunting and animal trade? Too risky because of potential unintended consequences for the economy. Rent control within DA metros? Are you mad?

The rent control resolution was, revealingly, put forward by the unsuccessful leadership candidate, Mbali Ntuli. Intended to deal with the growing unaffordability of rented accommodation close to economic hubs, it proposed that in city centre zones governed by the DA, increases in property rental should not increase by more than the property inflation rate.

“This proposal is so far to the left that not even the ANC or the EFF have proposed this,” MP Dean Macpherson – Steenhuisen’s campaign manager in the leadership race – shot back.

Other critics objected on the grounds that it amounted to an attack on private property rights; would constitute “dictating to the market”, and would mean that property developers would stop investing.

We are a liberal party committed to non-racialism, a market economy, and a capable state that empowers citizens and cares for the vulnerable.

The proposal by DA councillor Tiaan Kotzé that the party should lobby for the establishment of “ecocide” as a crime against humanity, meanwhile, was described by MP Ghaleb Cachalia as “ecofascism”.

Said veteran MP James Lorimer, who also objected to proposed restrictions against hunting: “If we want to be taken seriously as a party, we must be precise and make resolutions based on facts and not feelings.”

Later, Lorimer said: “We must be fanatical about jobs,” arguing that if the unintended consequences of resolutions would be a reduction in employment, they should be rejected.

For an outsider, these discussions around amendments to the DA constitution and proposed resolutions were arguably the most interesting aspect of the party’s congress – because they revealed aspects of the DA rarely witnessed in public. In particular, to hear DA representatives pushing for such leftie policies – even if they were shot down by the majority – is an indication of internal ideological contestation that seldom reaches public eyes unless it involves race and identity.

But it also makes one wonder how a leader goes about uniting party delegates among whom differences of opinion seem profound. It has often been said of the DA that, like many liberal parties, its positions are economically conservative but socially liberal.

Yet a party that sees resolutions raised at the same congress calling simultaneously for a crackdown on unions and the implementation of rent control is, arguably, not just healthily diverse. It may also be fundamentally confused.

Steenhuisen effectively acknowledged this in his acceptance speech after securing the leadership. He said: “For a while, we lost sight of who we are and what we offer: clear, principled and decisive leadership.”

Those days are over under his leadership, he said.

“We are a liberal party committed to non-racialism, a market economy, and a capable state that empowers citizens and cares for the vulnerable.”

Never again, Steenhuisen said, would the DA “turn our back on our core principles”.

This new decisiveness was evident even before the foregone conclusion of the election results, with the issue of farm murders placed firmly in the spotlight by the congress.

Indeed, in his opening address to the congress, party chairperson Ivan Meyer placed the issue at the very top of South Africa’s social ills by calling for a moment of silence for “those who have fallen” in farm attacks.

That farm attacks are a genuine problem in South Africa is unquestionable. What is also undeniable is that the topic has become so freighted with political baggage that it is now understood as shorthand for appealing to the interests of white Afrikaners, however much those discussing it may shoehorn in references to black farmers and farmworkers.

It is also because the topic has been co-opted by the white right to support false claims of “white genocide” that many politicians (and journalists) are wary of it.

A resolution proposed by MP Dianne Kohler Barnard at the congress called for farm attacks to “be declared a hate crime and a priority crime category, with a set of harsher sentences if prosecutors prove that the motive for the crime was hatred or contempt based on the victim’s identity as a farmer”. The resolution passed.

The direction being embarked upon by Steenhuisen’s party is indeed clear, and seems to have as its priority the winning back of the famous votes lost to the Freedom Front Plus in the last election. The question is, what comparable special effort is the party making in policy and messaging to win back the township votes shed?

What effort, too, will Steenhuisen’s DA make to ensure that the likes of Ntuli and other young progressives have a home in the party? Although Ntuli won a maximum of 20% of delegates’ votes at the congress, that figure still amounts to a few hundred of the party’s most important figures.

That is not negligible, particularly given the “clear blue water” – to borrow a favourite DA phrase – that would seem to exist in ideological terms between the Steenhuisen camp and that of Ntuli.

To run any organisation in a democratic fashion is not easy. To do so in the context of a political party with local government elections less than a year away is even less so, especially as the party led by Steenhuisen’s predecessor managed to shoot the lights out – relatively speaking – in the 2016 polls.  

But the most difficult task of all for Steenhuisen may be to hold a course that is acceptable to the highest number possible of his own party’s representatives – avoiding the damage of further high-profile resignations. DM   

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All Comments 15

  • Helen Suzman was, will always be, highly respected because she stuck courageously to sound, sane and lasting principles.
    If the DA gives way to their Looney Left, / wokers / PC / LGTBAXR+++Hows your Father / and associated frustrated nutters the party will immediately enter a six month death spiral.
    Finished and klaar.

  • A death spiral, to respond to the comment below (cos the reply button doesn’t like it), might be what the DA to allow space for a more relevant party than either the DA or the ANC in the body Politik.

  • In the SA context, union short-sightedness, corruption and cronyism have too often worked against the interests of the poor. For example, ill conceived strikes just about ruined the post office. The cronyism prevailing in SACTU has significantly contributed to educational mediocrity and retarded bottom-up Black empowerment. In addition, the guarantee of union commitment to the ANC has been a significant enabler of anti-poor ANC corruption. In such a context, restraining the unions seems consistent with Steenhuizen’s assertion: “We are a liberal party committed to non-racialism, a market economy, and a capable state that empowers citizens and cares for the vulnerable.” Barnard’s resolution (sentences should be harsher if prosecutors prove that the motive for the crime was hatred or contempt based on the victim’s identity as a farmer) is also consistent with this aim. Township folk are not stupid. They see this. The DA’s challenge is to temper its commitment to a “market economy” where such an economy starts to work against the poor. But SA has a long market economy route to go before such a point is reached.

  • Rebecca Davis is back to her unthinking left. She denigrates these points – “Smaller government, lower taxes, restrictions on unions. These are positions espoused by new DA leader John Steenhuisen and his supporters during the 2020 DA Federal Congress.” 1/ What is wrong with “smaller government” As opposed to the huge, bloated ANC government? An efficient DA government would free resources for providing what the ANC does not provide. 2/ What is wrong with “Lower taxes” as opposed to higher ANC taxes? More industry under the DA would allow higher total tax revenue and lower taxes on individuals. 3/ What is wrong with “restrictions on unions” as opposed to the totalitarian bully boy ANC unions? Cape Town lost 35 000 clothing industry workers due to bully-boy unions. And the rest.

  • John Steenhuisen will need a new range of skills to draw the party together and at the same time attract more supporters. South Africans are looking for a party that identifies the real issues that they face and puts forward viable solutions. They are tired of grandstanding, ideological rhetoric and the escalation of inter group conflict. Young people are particularly disenchanted with the failure of political parties to put forward a vision that will start addressing the serious existential challenges that loom in the future and threaten their future living circumstances. The old guard in the DA must not be allowed to stamp on the contribution of the young party supporters. Mbali Ntuli was very brave to stand up and needs to be encouraged and drawn into the top structure. She has much to contribute and could grow into an excellent leader or be driven out by frustration. The world is changing rapidly and a determination by the over forties generation to hold onto past principles that are no longer universal truths could be counter productive. The pandemic has provided the opportunity for political parties to think out of the box. Such thinking will only come from the under forties. I write this as an 83 year old.

  • Congratulations, John. And good luck.
    Unfortunately, it looks like the same old same old.

    “Never again, Steenhuisen said, would the DA “turn our back on our core principles”.” Take that poke in the eye, Mmusi:

    Rebecca Davis: “The direction being embarked upon by Steenhuisen’s party is indeed clear, and seems to have as its priority the winning back of the famous votes lost to the Freedom Front Plus in the last election. The question is, what comparable special effort is the party making in policy and messaging to win back the township votes shed?”
    Bazinga – this is the key question.

    And there don’t appear to be any new answers from the DA. Just more same old: More “core principles” and more Zille. All this is perfectly fine but then don’t gabber on about taking on the ANC. You won’t do that by fishing in the FF+ pond.

  • This article seems intent in sowing division when there needn’t be any. I pay my membership expecting balanced reporting, not propagate the toxic polarised politics that seem to be in vogue elsewhere.

  • I think the younger leaders should prevail and seeing as the destruction of the environment is in fact an end game with mankind out front as losers I think I quite like the idea of ecocide as a crime against humanity. I mean let’s be honest we have to start somewhere don’t we otherwise there will be no humanity to act against.

  • I agree with Colleen about Ecocide as a crime against humanity. “The proposal by DA councillor Tiaan Kotzé that the party should lobby for the establishment of “ecocide” as a crime against humanity, meanwhile, was described by MP Ghaleb Cachalia as “ecofascism”.” There is a world-wide campaign called “Stop Ecocide”. If we ignore the damage to the ecosystems and climate change we are heading for disaster, not eco-fascism. Listen to what science say!

  • These three positions are eye-catching to business owners: Smaller government, lower taxes, restrictions on unions.
    These three preferences will almost certainly not win the next election for the DA but they are a signal to people who are watching the DA. Politics is all about signalling.
    The DA has very little to lose, at this point, and lots of small risks can be worth taking if the eventual pay-off is big enough.

  • “We are a liberal party committed to non-racialism, a market economy, and a capable state that empowers citizens and cares for the vulnerable.”
    With a majority of top leaders white, the DA either doesn’t like blacks in leadership, or they don’t think blacks are competent. Neither is a non-racial position.
    A “market economy” and a “capable state” are pretty well meaningless terms. What is a market economy? Removal of minimum wages? Privatisation of health services, education, policing? Usually it means let the rich get richer and let the poor continue to hustle as best they can. Is that how you get a capable state – by outsourcing everything to the private sector who couldn’t care less unless they can make a profit? A Trumpian or a Cecil Rhodesian utopia? No market economy anywhere has ever shown itself to care for the vulnerable. We need better than catch phrases that have no real meaning if the ANC is to be outvoted and removed.

  • The only way forward for the DA is to win black votes. The young with their ‘Radicle’ ecocide ideology are in touch with future voters.

    Tony Leon speaks of the need to unite the white voters, when he went after the National Parties core voters in his book “On the contrary” but this is not 1999 and the DA is trying to catch the wrong fish. 2021 calls for a new strategy.

    I think losing those two Gentleman last year is going to hurt the DA for a long time to come.

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