South Africa

ANALYSIS

DA might be punished in the 2021 polls for choosing a Steenhuisen-Zille ticket

DA federal council chairperson Helen Zille. (Photo: Gallo Images/Jaco Marais) / DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images/Ziyaad Douglas)

The election of John Steenhuisen as DA leader and the re-election of Helen Zille as chair of its Federal Council are unlikely to help SA’s main opposition party improve its electoral success. Quite the opposite: the party could now find itself losing support, which would have a significant impact on South Africa as a whole.

The fate of the biggest opposition party in South Africa matters. Without a strong opposition party, those in power have more freedom to govern badly and engage in corruption without worrying about being punished come the next set of elections. Whether people like the party or not, what happens to the DA is important. Events of this weekend show that the party now appears to be changing course in a fundamental way. It may well be that the most important priority of its new leadership is to show that it is not actually changing course, and can continue to speak as a party “for all South Africans”.

On Sunday the party said that 80% of its members had voted to elect John Steenhuisen as leader, while the Federal Council of the party had elected Helen Zille to remain as its chair. 

This is the second coming of the DA’s problem that was originally best summed up, provocatively also, by then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema in the dying days of campaigning for the 2011 municipal elections. The combative leader told a packed FNB Stadium, with Jacob Zuma next to him, that,“The DA is for white people, the ANC is for you.”

Analysis: Malema and race, handiest political tool of all

For years, the DA has put much effort and energy into changing perceptions that it is a party primarily for white voters. 

When Tony Leon became leader of the party that was formed by the amalgamation of the Democratic Party, the Federal Alliance and the New National Party in 2000, there was some commentary on how he started speaking in Afrikaans. He understood that his party had an image of being primarily for English-speaking white South Africans. To change that, he needed to attract voters who had cast their ballot for the New National Party.

But things changed. By 2007, when he decided it was time, for the good of the party, for someone else to take it forward, there were three candidates. All three of them, Helen Zille, Joe Seremane and Athol Trollip were fluent in isiXhosa.

The 2007 conference at Gallagher Estate (held in the months before the ANC’s Polokwane conference) was a landmark event for the party. For the first time it was clear that the party was becoming “less white”, that a large number of attendees were black, coloured or Indian.

Zille was the clear front-runner, and she emerged victorious.

In her press conference after her victory on that Sunday afternoon, she spoke about how the DA needed to change its image. She referred to her upbringing, she told how, being from a German background, she had felt “out” at a private school (St Marys in Johannesburg) when girls competed with each other through insults. While these were couched as insults, in what was then a particularly British way, they were actually signs of affection. For someone who had not grown up with that it was upsetting, a language within a language to which she was not privy.

This was an important sign that Zille “got it”, that she realised the DA was not yet attractive to black voters and needed to change.

In the years after that Zille worked hard on this. Lindiwe Mazibuko became a prominent player. Soon after, Mmusi Maimane became the national spokesperson and was an important part of changing the face of the party. At events, Zille would interrupt conversations with journalists to talk to individual members of the party who had come to speak with her. It was good, solid politics.

And it worked. The party’s fortunes improved steadily.

Zille then, after Mazibuko left politics, created a situation in which Maimane could take over as leader without breaking a sweat.

The DA leadership battle: It is Maimane’s to lose

Again, this was part of what could have been seen as the process of changing the image of the DA, and the party as a whole. Behind the scenes, increasing numbers of black people joined the party, and its election manifesto launch in 2019 was a great example of how the organisation had changed.

DA unveils ‘pro-all South Africans’ manifesto that is decidedly anti-expropriation

Now, it appears that this process is being reversed, almost completely.

Steenhuisen is a polished performer, a strong politician, and one of the ablest practitioners of the dark arts of Parliament. He is quick with an answer to almost every question and is able to outthink most people.

But tone is important in politics. And his tone may come across as “talking down” to many people as Steenhuisen is more comfortable attacking the ANC than discussing issues like race.

However, for many voters the main problem may be Zille.

It is difficult now to reconcile the current image of Zille with the person she was in the early years of her leadership, after 2007. She was welcoming of diversity, understanding of the need for change, and prepared to give up the leadership to Maimane for the good of the party.

Now, she has almost become a symbol of toxicity, who has moved to the right as the politics of South Africa has moved more to the left. Her predecessor, James Selfe, hardly ever spoke about issues of race or society, but rather focused on winning the DA’s court cases against the government.

Zille has taken a different approach and her Twitter account has become a place for people to argue and fight about some of the toughest issues we face. In the process she has become a symbol of what the DA she led said it was trying to move away from.

Her re-election this weekend may overshadow the election of Steenhuisen, and is a bigger symbol of what some voters dislike in the DA.

Another major problem that the DA faces is linked to a broader issue in SA politics.

Leon recently gave an interview to News24 in which he suggested that to succeed in politics, “You need clear blue water to distinguish a party from its competitors. That’s just, you know, political marketing 101. Because if the party itself doesn’t have a distinctive idea of what its offer is, and what binds supporters, then it can’t go into the political marketplace of ideas and compete.”

This suggests one problem with competing with the ANC is that the ANC’s factions have such different policy views. The governing party contains both a mayor who believes in Malema’s economic policy and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, who is as economically orthodox as they come.

ANC’s Mzwandile Masina-sized splitting headache

If the governing party is so broad in outlook, how do you define yourself against it?

The DA’s leadership has to find a solution to this problem. It can no longer just wait for the ANC to split, or for some even bigger corruption scandal to occur. It needs to find a way to define itself, change its tone and to grow.

That process of defining itself may happen quickly.

It is almost certain that next year’s local government elections will go ahead as planned, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a result, the new leadership has a chance to define themselves through the 2021 election campaign.

But this also carries risks.

Many, or most, people in South Africa believe that race is a proxy for disadvantage. The DA has taken a formal policy position that it does not subscribe to this belief. It is entirely possible that most campaign events, interviews or public appearances will revolve around this one issue, defining the DA as the party that opposes it.

Zille’s seeming political shift could make this worse. 

In the end, this issue could be used so effectively against the DA that it might end up losing more black voters than attracting back the white voters it lost to the FF Plus.

Even worse for the DA, it could also entrench the perception that Malema was right, that indeed “the DA is for white people”.

The decisions the DA made at the weekend could weaken the party and our democracy. DM

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All Comments 18

  • As long as we keep using race as a proxy for everything, we will never get anywhere. MBali Ntuli is a very talented young lady and has a bright future ahead of her. Simply put she is not ready yet. If she were 10 years older and had similar parliamentary experience to John Steenhuizen, then she would have been a perfect candidate and not just because of her race and gender. The DA has already had black and female leaders, they don’t have to prove this point. Just look at their service delivery track record, that alone should convince most voters to choose them.

  • Oh look: the DA once again again picked the radioactive twitter-beast as its Federal Chairperson, along with shocking everyone by choosing John ‘yet another white guy in charge’ Steenhuisen as National Leader – can’t speak to how many other votes this will cost them, but its certainly cost them mine….

  • Mashaba will take the black right wing vote from the DA, perhaps a few white votes will come back from FFP, but the DA has consigned itself to being an even smaller minority than before for the foreseeable future. I’m white but could never vote for a party with a white leader, it will be a couple of generations at least before SA could even consider a white leader

  • Most of these comments and indeed Stephen Grootes article itself, ignore the fact that the person who heads the DA policy unit is a very talented young black African lady. Does that make the DA a party for people with white skin? Second, reports suggest that Zille’s reelection margin was less than when she was originally elected federal chair. Her days of influence are numbered and thereafter she will no longer be an irrelevant distraction from the policies of the party which are what South Africa needs.

  • This continual harping on about personalities really irritates me. The essence of the issue is that any election in SA will be decided firstly on race. Black voters fear the return of white supremacy and think that only a black government will give them a handout at the end of each month. White voters fear that a black government will pilfer taxes, destroy institutions and sideline minorities. Which party is least likely to follow these stereotypes? Sadly it makes no difference. As African voters have done all over the continent they will vote themselves into oblivion. IT matters not what the ANC does as long as there is no effective Black opposition our future is fraught.

  • Oh that DA Helen Zille should stay “retired” why are you stirring SA politics in a disheveled state. Go and behind some bushes in the “Kaap”
    You have lost my vote and many others of my like.

  • Another political history lesson, I think? Do you not think COVID will influence political thinking and emotions, I do because it has changed almost every other aspect of life?

  • The thought a black person will draw more votes belongs back in the days of apartheid. One either works race and its all about race or you carry on. The people voters needs to be completely desperate for a new government. Ask Zimbabwe how much they would like to have a new government. Give or take 10 to 20 years and our voters will be looking for anyone who can give them a job and gets the economy moving who is not corrupt.

  • Interesting how no-one here has noticed that Zille has been muzzled on Twitter for a while. It was reported a few weeks back in another DM article that she has someone “managing” the account for her. That’s a first step for managing her, as her long-form content that she posts on DM is good, but her tweets were politically damaging for the party. Otherwise I have no problem with Zille.

    In regards to Steenhuisen, while I would have preferred Ntuli, I’m happy to give him a shot.

    At the end of the day I see all these people talking about race and my only thoughts on that subject are this: the DA has problems for sure, but at the end of the day they run the tightest ship in SA, even if the bar is incredibly low. Until someone comes along that can do a better job they’ll probably get my vote. I live in the WC but grew up and visit KZN frequently, and the place I grew up barely has roads any more. The WC has its problems, such as social housing and gang violence, but we’re still far better off than most of the country thanks to the DA.

  • If you are White, and live in the Western Cape under a DA municipality, there is no doubt that you are better of than whites in other municipalities. However, the same does not necessarily apply, even in the Western Cape, if you are Brown, or Black. So the DA can carry on with this strategy, “protecting” whites in the WC, or progress to something much bigger. As it is, they will continue to lose votes, from Afr. Whites everywhere, from Brown and Black in WC, and everybody else in other provinces. It is not about policy. It is about the strenght and diversity of leadership. And this DA has not got either

  • There is, unfortunately, nothing brilliant anymore in the DA. Both Zille and Steenhuisen just rely on their whiteness and bullying nature to shift things forward according to their insulated views on SA. Watching Steeinhuisen debate is embarrassing.
    They deserve to be punished by voters moving away. The bigger problem is, where do voters move to?