ROAD TO 2021 LOCAL ELECTIONS
Interview: DA’s Steenhuisen sets his sights on the ‘rational centre’ and targets 24% support in upcoming poll
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