Picture of politics: DA in free fall, but Steenhuisen pins his hopes on 22 May ‘virtual rally’

Illustration: James Durno

With the ANC’s internal ructions tearing it apart, one would think this would be the perfect moment for a strong opposition to assert itself. But the DA is lurching from one scandal to the next, its by-election results speak for themselves, and insiders say the mood within the party is bitter and fearful.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

It was a week in which surely nothing could dislodge the ANC’s top brass from the negative headlines. Until a video went viral on 6 May showing the DA’s Gauteng leader Solly Msimanga apparently being assaulted by a man who accused Msimanga of owing him more than a million rand.

The incident epitomised the kind of unwanted drama the DA seems unable to shake off right now. The Msimanga video surfaced just days after the Weekend Argus revealed that yet another senior DA figure – Xanthea Limberg, City of Cape Town mayoral committee member for water – stands accused of having falsified her CV. The Limberg allegation comes in the wake of the forced resignation of Western Cape DA leader Bonginkosi Madikizela after DM168 revealed he had lied about his qualifications.

Amid a flurry of bad PR, party leader John Steenhuisen seemed determined to generate some positive hype. A “special announcement” was promised to media – which took the form of a video showing Steenhuisen announcing a “virtual rally” in front of lacklustre youth waving South African flags. The video was panned on social media. It also caused distress within the party, DM168 is reliably informed, where it was considered in some quarters to be both embarrassing and politically tone-deaf.

Part of the intention of the video was to inform South Africans that the DA is focused and “marching forward” towards the local government elections on 27 October. But the picture that emerges from DM168’s interviews with party figures is quite different.

“People are saying it’s not worth working for this election because it doesn’t matter what we do on the ground – our leadership and national structures keep messing up and morale is at an all-time low,” said a DA activist who asked not to be named.

Steenhuisen denies this.

“Morale may have been low after the 2019 [election] performance and the events thereafter,” the party leader told DM168. But he says that since the DA’s 2020 policy conference and elective conference that confirmed his leadership, the party has “regained its ideological footing”, with its structures “energised and determined”.

Electoral dysfunction

It has long been Steenhuisen’s claim that the party only needed to shake off the ideological ambiguity that characterised the leadership of his predecessor, Mmusi Maimane, and its course would be steadied once more.

Yet the electoral losses that have plagued the DA for the past two years have not been stemmed by Steenhuisen’s stewardship.

“The DA’s performance in by-elections has not been very good for the past couple of rounds, and there have been some car-crash losses,” elections analyst Wayne Sussman told DM168.

In the Super Wednesday by-elections held in November 2020, as was widely publicised, the DA surrendered nine wards and gained just two. In by-elections held since, the party has fared somewhat better, but still experienced significant drops in vote share. This slump has been particularly pronounced among coloured and Indian voters.

Observed data-cruncher Dawie Scholtz said on Twitter: “In every by-election in predominantly coloured areas for the last year, the DA has been experiencing [10% to 30%] swings against it.”

Steenhuisen does not deny the trend, but terms it part of a global phenomenon in which, in times of uncertainty, “people retreat into the laagers of race and ethnicity because they feel safe there”.

Recent by-election results show that both the DA and the ANC are losing support among coloured and Indian voters to smaller parties like the Patriotic Alliance and Al Jama-ah, while Afrikaans voters continue to turn to the Freedom Front Plus.

“One of the only safe spaces for the DA at the moment is white English-speaking suburbia,” says Sussman.

“That and – with some exceptions – urban coloured voters in Cape Town.”

Instability of leadership

The leadership team of John Steenhuisen and the party’s federal council chair Helen Zille is sometimes painted as having an iron hold over the DA’s current direction. But insiders say this is not quite accurate.

Zille was described to DM168 as being currently “totally distracted” by efforts to promote her self-published book #StayWoke Go Broke, a work described as an explanation of “why the woke Left constitutes a greater threat to South Africa’s future than the populist Right does”.

Insiders say the book itself is causing unhappiness among the party’s younger activists, who fundamentally disagree with Zille’s conclusions and fear that the DA at large will suffer from the association.

“The in-fighting is at an all-time high, hence all the leaks and dramas,” DM168 was told, in a reference to the fingers pointed at numerous other DA figures after the Madikizela qualifications scandal.

“It all points to no real control or focus of the party.”

Internal disputes are likely to coalesce around the contest for mayoral nominations in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Tshwane. It has already been suggested that the information about Madikizela’s CV was leaked in order to eliminate him from the race for Cape Town’s mayoral chain to pave the way for a win for Zille and Steenhuisen’s preferred candidate, MP Geordin Hill-Lewis.

In Gauteng, a bigger problem is the lack of household names to serve as mayoral candidates – the issue that businessman Herman Mashaba was recruited to solve, before his relationship with the party went south in 2019. In Johannesburg, it is expected that either DA caucus leader Leah Knott or councillor Mpho Phalatse will win the party’s nomination, but there are concerns that neither has the required visibility or excitement factor to galvanise the city’s voters ahead of the October by-elections.

A rally good idea?

Can Steenhuisen’s “virtual rally”, scheduled for 22 May, pull the party together as it begins campaigning in earnest for the October local government elections?

The DA leader told DM168 that the event would showcase the “ground-breaking” technological innovation that the party has been pioneering since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. It will also “officially kick off the campaign season”.

There are hopes within the party that the ANC’s Ace Magashule-related chaos will be a sufficient turn-off to South African voters to send them flocking to the DA in October. But there is little doubt that the DA will have its work cut out for it regardless of the shenanigans in the governing party. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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All Comments 27

  • Rebecca Davis back to her true colours of bashing the DA, the only genuine alternative to an ANC dynasty of corruption.

        • To all three of you….your White, blatant racist, 3 “command council” chiefs (Steenhuisen, Zille,Leon) embarrassed the few Whites left in this country. They are massive losers, yet you hang on to a tree with no leaves. This party destroyed itself from within, and you are defending it? Poor you

    • While it may be true that Rebecca Davis is not a DA supporter, it is also true that recent by-election results have been dismal. You can’t blame her for that. The DA has lost its political way. It has become arrogant and complacent, and is spending most of its time looking up its own anus.

      • Echo by 1000. Steenhuisen/Zille/Leon…rich kids trying to play a game of chess. As a previous white supporter, this trio smack of blatant racism, arrogance, and White English speaking monopoly supremacy. Forget the ANC, these 3 will cause a house crumpling down to a waste land with burned ashes

    • ‘Bashing the DA’ aka reporting on observed reality. Zille and Tony Leon have reset the DA to FF+ (English Version) and without black votes, and with a dwindling white base, the DA will shrink into insignificance.

  • If you are a party based on honesty and good governance you need enough honest and competent people in it. Since there are not enough honest and competent politicions in SA to grow the DA it had to scrape the barrel and recruit chancers,in it for the positions and therefore you have what you have.

    • Still far better than the non-governing corrupt ANC! Critics seem more interested in individuals in the DA than in the party’s policies. I can’t understand how these critics can be so shortsighted.

      • A person talking bulls..t. Do you honestly feel that Black, Coloured and Indian South Africans will trust, forget about vote, for 3 arrogant, racist, and self-enriched Whites, such as Steenhuisen, Zille, and Leon? Never have I heard so much bull coming from White South Africans, whilst toy-toying!

        • So Indian person here. I agree Zille is a PR disaster but your dislike of the DA doesn’t necessarily apply to all Indian people. As discussed in the article, I think parties like
          Al Jama-ah will find their niche but that to assume all Indians are done with the DA is a bit presumptious.

        • As a voter, I am neutral with regards to my views on Steenhuisen and Leon, and the fact that even if what Rebecca says is true, the DA is still the least “leaky ship”/most competent political party in SA, which is why I will probably vote DA for the local elections.

          • Propably? So you are not sure. Well then, why post anything to this article?

      • Oh come on man. The leadership is a shambles, all eggshell egos and echo chambers. And JP Smith. The Day Zero debacle really dropped the curtain on their little operation: smart enough to maintain a bureaucracy and keep the corruption subtle, but lacking any vision for a future. They’re busking.

  • The DA needs a real leader to pull everyone together on a non racial basis. I’m thinking of a real mensch, someone like Frederick van Zyl Slabbert.

  • Rebecca, your article speak the truth. The DA has destroyed itself, with the able assistance of Leon and off-course Zille. The next municipal elections (IF it happens) will see the DA crumble in the Western Cape in key municipalities, with other provinces not even a blip on the radar screen. Bye!

    • Bye Coen. I’ll stay and do my best to help maintaing the Western Cape as a working, well-run province. Enjoy life in the ANC slum.

      • For the record, Mr. Schoombee, I am not a ANC supporterand nowhere did I say that. But lets see if you are successful in “maintaing” the WC. Since you can’t spell, I doubt if you would be able to stop the free fall.

        • Do we have to assume that you have a low regard for Alan Winde as well? As far as I can see, he seems to be doing a pretty good job of governing the Western Cape but I am really more interested in the policies of a party rather than being obsessed with individuals in that party.

        • Do we assume that you have a low regard for Alan Winde as well? As far as I can see, he seems to be doing a pretty good job of governing the Western Cape but I am really more interested in the policies of a party rather than being obsessed with individuals in that party.(Not a duplicate comment)

  • As a DA supporter I think Steenhuisen is good – but unfortunately a good second in command. I don’t think parachuting Mmusi in was a brilliant idea, but I agree the DA needs more competent non-white faces. Finally, can they stop the own goals? Just do what they are good at: management, organisation.

    • From Saldanha Bay Municipality..anything but competent. In fact, livered with greed, bad management, incompetence fools, lead by a joke of a major, a DA Major. Steenhuisen is a screamer, under the will of Zille and Leon. In fact, he is a joke, incapable of any leadership ability, with a std 10.

  • The DA takes missteps- one is the”forced” resignation of Bonginkosi Madkizela, for upgrading his qualifications.A stern public reprimand should have sufficed, especially in view of the truly awful corrupt activities of some members of the ANC.

  • Have given up on the DA as a viable party. Its integrity has been hopelessly compromised over the years, and I can no longer support it. It has become a mini-ANC in governance (though not in policy). Even its policies are suspect – the last remaining bastion of white priviledge…

    • Lol. As an Indian person I don’t buy the white privilege argument. Yes, it’s leadership is predominantly pale, but I honestly couldn’t care if they can do the job.

      The only problematic areas the DA actually has is 1) optics, and 2) its refusal to bring better social housing solutions to CoCT.

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