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