South Africa


Interview: DA’s Steenhuisen sets his sights on the ‘rational centre’ and targets 24% support in upcoming poll

Interview: DA’s Steenhuisen sets his sights on the ‘rational centre’ and targets 24% support in upcoming poll
John Steenhuisen during the Democratic Alliance (DA) manifesto launch at the Rand Stadium on February 23, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

The DA’s magic number is 24 – as in 24% support nationally in the 2021 municipal poll when, for the first time, the party is fielding a candidate in every ward. Much is at stake also for DA leader John Steenhuisen, in his first time fronting an election.

It’s about two players and one central question when voters go to the polls on 1 November, DA leader John Steenhuisen told Daily Maverick on Thursday. 

“Only two parties have governed in South Africa, the ANC and the DA. It distils the election down to the question: ‘Who do I trust to run my municipality to provide basic services, to not steal my money and hopefully allow me to build a better future for myself and my children?’” 

With this approach the DA ticks all its boxes. It crowds out other opposition parties – the Freedom Front Plus and also the Patriotic Front that took wards off the DA in by-elections, are described as “niche, ethnic-based parties” – and allows the DA to campaign on what it calls its unique selling proposition, or getting things done. 

“The message is that we can go hand on heart and say, ‘We are not here to make promises, but here’s what we’ve done in small towns. This is what we’ve done in metros. Here’s what we’ve done in the Western Cape, Gauteng, in the Eastern Cape,” said Steenhuisen, adding that “showing not telling” was a compelling offering to voters gatvol of municipal mismanagement. 

So expect Cape Town, where the DA has been in charge for 15 years, touted as proof of DA governance track record, to feature large, alongside Midvaal in Gauteng, Koega in the Eastern Cape and other Western Cape DA-run councils like Stellenbosch and Swellendam. 

But questions arise over the 24% support target for the 2021 local government election, given the DA clinched 26.9% nationwide in the 2016 poll. Effectively, setting this 2021 polling target is a little like a government department dropping its performance target a year after hitting a better percentage. 

Steenhuisen dismisses this. The party had done its research, and the target had been set in relation to the last election in May 2019, even if that was a national and provincial poll. 

“You can’t compare these local government elections to the last one. You had Jacob Zuma in power, a deeply unpopular president with people on the streets around South Africa, a different universe. 2019 is the most like-with-like comparison. It’s a far better measure.” 

Electoral performance is important in the DA. But should things go horribly wrong come 1 November, given the 24% target, Steenhuisen still has an almost 3% cushion. 

Missing targets, or dropping support at the ballot boxes is costly for party leaders. Just ask Mmusi Maimane, under whose leadership the DA’s change agenda didn’t quite deliver in the May 2019 elections when the DA came in at 20.77%, down from 22.23% in the 2014 poll. It cost Maimane his job; he resigned in October 2019, following key members of the 2019 campaign team. 

Steenhuisen acknowledges that some of those who did not support the DA in 2019 would never return. 

“I am not going to take the DA down a rabbit hole to get those people back. My focus is on winning more people in the middle ground. I want the DA to be that rational centre.” 

And part of that was making the DA “palatable as a coalition partner”. Or as Steenhuisen put it, “To bring other organisations and parties into the orbit of the realignment, we are not going to be able to do that from a far-right perspective. It’s just not going to work. So if we want to partner at the centre of South Africa, we have to play in that space – and not play in the far-right space. That’s not where we’re going to grow.” 

The DA traditionally does better in local government polls. And the largest opposition party is upbeat it has the right mix to appeal to gatvol voters. 

The opposition party has a reputation of rolling out its election machinery, dubbed fondly in party ranks as “the blue machinery”. It means it can get off the ground quickly – and so the posters are up already in four metros, and the candidates for metro mayor in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay and Cape Town have hit the campaign trail. 

Part of that machinery is number-crunching, and tracking voting sentiment  – even if DA Federal Council Chairperson Helen Zille may have pursued some creative number-crunching to turn the loss of several wards in by-elections into claims of increased support. 

The DA pretty much knows who its voters are, where they are, and what to offer to ensure wins like a by-election victory even in, say, the Pretoria CBD or rural Eastern Cape. All that helps focus efforts in times when donors are scarce. That’s important. 

“We are not going to focus on the ANC. We are challenging people to look past the ANC and imagine post-ANC municipalities,” said Steenhuisen, saying the campaign trail had started in April. 

“The places I visited… no running water, no electricity, sewage running down the streets. Municipal administrations that are robbing and stealing blind and then profiting off the chaos they create. There’s politicians involved in water tankers and sewage suckers and I think there’s a deliberate wrecking of infrastructure so there can be rent seeking.” 

While the DA’s claims of better governance and delivery performance have featured in previous elections, they were usually defined in contrast to the ANC, or as in the DA alternative, change or difference. That won’t happen again in 2021. The ANC will not really feature in its manifesto or the DA hustings. In an echo of the 2006 municipal campaign offering of “the DA delivers for all” motto, the focus is now on going positive, or that unique selling proposition. 

But much remains unsettled. That includes the pending Constitutional Court ruling on the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) reopened window for political parties to re-register councillor candidates. The DA has filed court papers against this IEC decision that effectively would allow the ANC to correct its missed councillor registrations in around 35 councils. 

It’s one of the balls up in the air that makes it difficult to make firm predictions at this stage. Steenhuisen maintains pollsters who set the DA support at 17% or thereabouts have got it wrong. But he wasn’t going to talk numbers. 

“Six-and-a-half weeks out from an election and the ANC are in complete disarray. The longer we keep them in disarray and on the back foot, the more advantage to us.” 

But if it all goes south, coalitions are an option – just not with the EFF. 

“We can have different ideologies and different positions but you have to agree on core values. We learnt some lessons there [Johannesburg) that will put us in better stead to run viable coalitions.” 

And those core values include market-based, business-friendly, respect for rule of law and the Constitution as part of the package of the “rational centre” the DA wants to represent. 

What’s set to be South Africa’s shortest election campaign trail kicks off in earnest with this weekend’s voter registration. For the DA identifying potential voters and getting them to register is the game changer. 

“This election is going to be won on registration,” said Steenhuisen. And on momentum. “There’s wind in our sails again. The party is energised and it’s ready for this election.” DM

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/8671″]


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  • Cedric de Beer says:

    So the people who left the DA because of its hounding out of much of the black leadership and its turn to the extreme SAIRR right are “not rational.” Well now we know. They fired Maimane because he did not achieve the electoral targets. I trust when that happens this time Steenhuisen will do the honourable thing.

    • Stephen T says:

      As I recall, Maimane was not fired. He simply was at ideological odds with one of the core DA policies – that of AA/BEE. How can a leader continue to lead a party when he disagrees with one of it’s core tenets? It was the correct decision in my view.

      The DA and IRR are “extreme right”?! lol.

    • R S says:

      The black leaders that have left or been pushed out are very much of the “ANC-lite” era. I will agree that some were clearly told “get in line or get out”, and were eventually pushed, but clearly Maimane’s era of the DA is over, and I honestly think this is for the better. While the DA did grow during his time, that was also during the Zuma years, which one can’t discount as being a major factor driving voters away from the ANC.

      I myself hoped that Mbali Ntuli would have a reasonable chance, but sadly things turned out differently. However, I have warmed up to Steenhuisen’s message and hope people will look past the colour of Steenhuisen’s skin (not very likely unfortunately) and listen to what he has to say and what the current DA is focusing on, because, even as a PoC, I like their current message (sadly I’m probably in the minority). They are also dealing with the social housing issue, the one area I was not happy with, and making changes to make Cape Town a more inclusive space.

      But ya, like I said, people like me are in the minority, or at least it feels that way. Most people will probably vote along racial lines. Guess we’ll see what happens.

    • Simon D says:

      Mmusi threw a tantrum and left if I recall correctly.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Finally the DA focuses on its undeniable strength, of being able to run municipalities at a standard that allows residents to carry on with their lives.

    • Jeremy Collins says:

      EDIT: Finally the DA focuses on its undeniable strength, of being able to run select areas of municipalities at a standard that allows politically important ratepayers to carry on with their lives and ignore disparities in services in areas populated by the underclass.

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        EDIT: This of course in stark contrast to the underclass who are living in opulence and abundance in ANC municipalities.

      • Paddy Ross says:

        People use the Cape Flats as an example of DA failure but those areas are made ungovernable by the criminal gangs that live there. They are there because SAPS is not doing its job of driving out the gangs and their drug networks but, instead, persecutes police officers such as Vearey, Jacobs, Lincoln, and Kinnear.

  • James McQueQue says:

    Are the DA doing enough to appeal to anyone under 40 years of age? It’s disappointing seeing Helen Zille is still pulling strings in the background.

  • District Six says:

    A reality the DA won’t acknowledge is that Zille turned away more than black voters with her ill-considered “colonialism” nonsense. Thousands of Afrikaners who remember feeling the boot of colonialism in the Groot Trek and the concentration camps and scorched earth campaign of Kitchner, must have had a slap in the face also. Afrikaners jumped to the FF+

    • Paddy Ross says:

      It was not colonialism nonsense but a statement of fact that was foolishly disseminated by her on Twitter.

      • Lyn Inch says:

        Yes but one must always remember that your audience are not necessarily multi lingual. Her comment was very true about what colonialism brought as advantages to a colony. But if English was not my home language I would maybe have misunderstood her comment.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    How can a party that consistently pushes talented young Black South Africans aside hope to grow to a meaningful level?

    • Stephen T says:

      I would hazard a guess that they are either pushed out or choose to leave not because they are young, talented, or black, but because they hold ideologically views incompatible with what the DA stands for. This is far better than the chameleon politics of compromising the party principles in order to win votes using superficial nonsense like skin colour.

  • Jeremy Collins says:

    The ANC is literally imploding, and the DA’s only play is pandering to centrists in the hope they can regain lost ground via coalitions with centre right parties? The Zille/IRR faction’s determination to reduce the DA to a MAGA-Lite minority party leaves a significant percentage of SA voters up for grabs. With massive global crises bearing down on our fragile economy, the DA has chosen to reverse down the beautifully maintained regional road to irrelevancy.

  • Greg Barker says:

    ‘Sewage running down the streets’ sounds very much like Cape Town to me this Winter with all freshwater bodies still closed to the public because of ecoli contamination caused by sewage overflows due to years of underinvestment in wastewater treatment capacity… similarly sewage flowing into the ocean across Cape Town’s beaches, so that is probably not the best marketing campaign. DA are relying more on the principle that ‘in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’. TINFA!

    • Chris Marshall says:

      Good comment Greg. The DA is taking far more credit than it deserves. Cape Town has one of the most expensive administrations in the world (relative to its GDP) yet fails to deliver the basics to many. Come to Camps Bay beach to see raw sewage flowing onto your beach towel – and that is as good as it gets in our metro. By all means vote DA but then take action to ensure that they deliver on their promises.

  • sl0m0 za says:

    I don’t care about DA mistakes, all parties have their flaws. What I care about is NOT allowing the cANCer to spread. The DA has a proven track record of success. NO OTHER PARTY can say the same !!!

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Don’t worry about being rational, just don’t be stupid.

    Vote DA if you care at all about the future of your country and your children.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    So obviously ANC out of the question and, if not DA, a good alternative has not been discussed. I assume the critique means there is a solution ? Please share your thoughts.

    • Chris Marshall says:

      If the DA does not nominate a councillor that you know and trust then find a party that does or an independent to do the job. The DA also has its “deployees” which may suit them but not us.

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