South Africa

2021 ELECTIONS ANALYSIS

DA’s post-election spin is Trumpian in its ‘alternative facts’

DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook | Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The DA claims that only a ‘superficial analysis’ would conclude that the party’s support had dropped from 2016, while a ‘deeper look’ would reveal that it has turned things around. That’s a funny way of looking at the local government elections results.

In the last local government elections, the DA won 1,782 seats nationally, was the leading party in 24 municipalities and had outright control of 19.

In the 2021 local government elections, the DA won 1,396 seats nationally, is the leading party in 23 municipalities and has outright control of 11.

In other words, the DA lost 386 seats nationally and lost majority control of eight municipalities.

The number of seats lost by the DA in this election — 386 — is more than the combined number won by the Freedom Front Plus, ActionSA and the Patriotic Alliance — all of whom have expressed great satisfaction with their results.    

It is normal for political parties to try to spin disappointing results into something more positive. Perhaps South Africa’s greatest artist at this game is the ATM’s Mzwanele Manyi, who tweeted this week: “The ATM may not have achieved what it had set out to achieve, BUT unlike others, the ATM has not lost anything. You can’t lose what you never had. Well done ATM.”

The post-election statement issued by DA leader John Steenhuisen almost rivals Manyi’s in its insistence that the polls actually represent excellent news for his party.

The statement seems to start off in touch with reality, acknowledging that these elections have given the DA “areas for us to look at critically and honestly so that we may make improvements” — although there is also “much to feel buoyed by”.

“We know which communities and which regions have sent us a message,” continues Steenhuisen, though he is certainly not about to elaborate. He says that voters don’t like unstable coalitions, which is undoubtedly true, and lays out the DA’s conditions for entering into coalitions.

Then things start to veer off-piste. “An even more important message we received from voters is that, where we govern outright and govern well, people want more of the same,” declares Steenhuisen.

Except in the eight municipalities where the DA did govern outright and people decided they wanted rather less of the same. Unless, of course, Steenhuisen is suggesting that these municipalities were not governed well?

In the Western Cape hinterland in particular, the DA has been badly bruised. To lose outright majorities in Beaufort West, Oudtshoorn, Cape Agulhas, Saldanha Bay, Breede Valley, Langeberg…

The result in Cape Agulhas is particularly jaw-dropping, since News24’s Out of Order index recently ranked Cape Agulhas as the top-performing municipality in the country. This was, apparently, not enough for voters to return the DA to power with a majority.

Continues Steenhuisen: “That is why municipalities such as Midvaal, Mossel Bay and Stellenbosch gave the DA such a strong mandate to continue our work there.” 

Fair enough on Midvaal and Mossel Bay, both of which were rare DA success stories in this election. Not quite so valid with regard to Stellenbosch, where the DA dropped two seats and went from 2016’s 69.39% to 2021’s 61.43% support. It’s also fair for Steenhuisen to point out that Cape Town chose a DA mayor again, although once more with a reduced vote share.

It’s here, however, that Steenhuisen begins to embark on some serious off-roading from reality.

“What we also learnt from this election is that our project of stabilisation and consolidation of the DA is very much on track,” he writes. That is not remotely what the numbers suggest, but okay. He then proceeds to suggest that one should compare the DA’s results in this election with the 2019 national elections rather than the last local government elections:

“While many analysts choose to look only at how parties performed in these elections compared to the last local government election in 2016 — since campaign issues and factors such as voter turnout often differ from a national election — the DA has had a unique journey over this period that makes the 2019 figures particularly relevant.”

Just to be clear, this is dishonest. It is not “many analysts” who choose to compare apples with apples; it is all reputable analysts. That is why the IEC website does not even give one the option to compare 2021 results with 2019 results: to do so is almost meaningless. 

In one set of elections, the public is voting for a local councillor to fix the pothole outside their door. In another set, they are voting for the legislators they want to see representing them in Parliament. These amount to, as Steenhuisen blithely acknowledges, rather different “campaign issues and factors”, and that’s why certain parties do better or worse in the local government elections than in the national polls.

The DA has traditionally done better in the local government elections than the national elections; quite a lot better. The high-water mark of the party’s electoral performance — the best it has ever done — was in 2016 under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane.

Steenhuisen is patently trying to redirect attention from 2016 to 2019, where the party brought home a dismal 20.77%, in order to claim an improvement in electoral results under his stewardship. This is verging on gaslighting.

It is also part of a nasty trend that has taken root in the DA under Steenhuisen’s leadership, and which sees the party attempt to cast doubt on analysts’ findings rather than own up to its own failings. It was also the case after 2020’s Super Wednesday, where analysts like Daily Maverick’s superb number-cruncher Wayne Sussman pointed out — based on cold, hard numbers — that the DA performed poorly, and were accused by the DA leadership of misrepresenting the facts. Instead, it is the DA that seems increasingly to be peddling alternative facts.

“Equally encouraging has been our growth among peri-urban and rural black voters, where a sample of over 3,000 voters showed our support doubling from 3.2% to 6.4% in this segment,” writes Steenhuisen, employing another classic tactic: cherry-picking supporting figures without giving any clear indication where they come from. Who are these 3,000 voters?

The analysts looking at the 2021 local government election data have unequivocally shown, for instance, that the DA’s support among black voters in Joburg townships has virtually halved since 2016.

The numbers are actually quite simple. Take the informal settlement of Alexandra, for instance, with 80,000 voters. In 2016, 8% voted for the DA. In 2021, 2% voted for the DA.

The DA’s support among black urban voters has almost collapsed. A drastic drop has also been evident in the party’s following among coloured voters. Figures tweeted by analyst Dawie Scholtz, which the DA will no doubt try to contest, show that the DA enjoyed 77% of support among coloured voters in 2016, but this has now fallen to 54%.

Why would Steenhuisen be so set on painting a rosy picture in the face of clear evidence to the contrary? One might suggest two reasons.

The first is that the Steenhuisen/Zille axis has been adamant that it is not engaging in “identity politics” — which, it turns out, really means: “it is not making any special appeal to voters of colour”.

Because the party has simultaneously been making almost frantic appeals to Afrikaans voters and their sense of identity. A recent DA statement on the Stellenbosch language fracas went so far as to accuse the exclusively Afrikaans Freedom Front Plus of being hensoppers — people who surrender — when it came to fighting for Afrikaans rights. Identity politics, it turns out, is acceptable to the DA when it comes to Afrikaners.

The irony of this is that the DA’s greatest success this election came in winning its first-ever KwaZulu-Natal municipality in the form of uMngeni (Howick), which it did by sending in a passionate and talented young white man, Chris Pappas, who happens to speak isiZulu fluently. Pappas’s ability to connect with Zulu-speaking voters in their own language is evidently what made the difference there — because language is identity, and people want their identities to be seen, heard and recognised. (Pappas suggested as much to me when I interviewed him on Thursday.)

For the DA to acknowledge the losses it has suffered in these polls as a result of the Steenhuisen/Zille identity blindness would clearly be deeply confronting to its leadership.

The second reason why Steenhuisen cannot cop up to the DA’s failure in these elections is because that is precisely what his predecessor, Maimane, was made to do after the disastrous 2019 polls, which led to Maimane’s forced resignation. By the same logic, Steenhuisen should also be made to bear responsibility for these disappointing results — which show that he has not even succeeded in stemming the loss of votes to the Freedom Front Plus, which was said to be his priority.

Come back to Earth, John, and consider facing the music. DM

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All Comments 31

  • Rebecca, you don’t need the likes of me to say that you are a top class investigative journalist but your dislike of the DA is becoming a phobia – ” an abnormal fear or dislike of something”. Why express such vitriol when Steenhuisen is merely putting a politician’s spin on facts. That’s what politicians do. I was very impressed with the results that the DA achieved in this election despite the barrage of one sided anti-DA articles that DM and News24 churn out. I was delighted as a resident of Cape Town who does not have the right to vote that the voters here ignored that barrage.

  • Rebecca Davis’s column is about the closest I have come to pushing “unsubscribe”. We know (or should know) that only the DA has a hope of getting this country right. But Rebecca. instead of celebrating that “we” have got the ANC below 50%, chooses to bash the DA! Has DM just become another woke media outlet? She used to write humourous and insightful articles. It now seems to have changed to spiteful rather than insightful. Try moving to Emfulemi!

  • Shame on u Rebecca Davis! I again want to thank the DA for not looting for not being self seeking for not raiding others savings…. And thank you for not rushing of to the luxury vehicle and fashion stores on tax payers money. The DA is incorruptible……Well done DA. The party for ALL SOUTH AFRICANS. Give praise where praise is due.

  • The ANC abuse power, steal, lie and shatter the hopes of millions.
    The EFF abuse what limited power they have to likewise steal, lie and shatter the hopes of millions.
    The DA puts “a spin” on the election results to make themselves appear better.

    Do we truly not see the disparity in the measurement of “bad” here?

    …sadly the election results indicate stupidity is alive and well in South Africa.

  • Very disappointed in Daily Maverick. You just cannot help yourselves and the DA is such a convenient punching bag. At least the municipalities they run are not riddled by corruption and looting.

  • A politician interpreting results in his favor!! Crazy stuff, never happened before. Let’s call them trumpian and insinuate that there is an actual direct comparison.
    Seriously DM…you really can do better…

  • I don’t understand the media’s obsession with DA bashing. Whatever they are, it’s the only party that has a track record of well run municipalities and any voter with some common sense would support them. Why would anyone agitate against that? For what reason would you want to denigrate the last and only thing in this country that actually works? Silly article.

  • This is from a person who used the word” bizarre” countless times in reference to the possibility of DA having a male candidate as mayor, and that he was white, nogal. You wonder why this biased obsession with the DA. Do these “journalists” really wish to have the ANC for the next 5 years.
    The DA has already scored over 3.2m votes and counting. As I understand it, there are only 2.4 whites who can vote, so the DA is definitely not a “White” party . So why this lazy stereotyping.
    Oh, what a prejudiced snowflake you have become. But still interesting to see how the media woke media howls to express their petty self-righteous anger.

  • One can just as easily dismiss corruption as dishonesty as “just something politicians do.”

    If the DA wants to claim the moral high ground, then they must also be prepared to be judged against a higher standard.

    Clearly the electorate did not rate the DA as highly as the commenters here. This is brave, factually grounded journalism (unlike Steenhuisen’s spin.) Spot on!

  • Poor DA members, don’t you see that the DA is wasting the greatest chance it ever had to become a force to be reckoned with. If it wants to become a power for change it has to be willing to accommodate at least part of population that represents the majority of this country to do so. But the duo of Zille/Steenhuisen is incapable of accepting that. And that the DA pushed the ANC below 50%, as stated by Selwyn Lange, is fiction of his imagination. This was a due the majority to either refrain from voting for the ANC and/or giving their votes to the many smaller parties.

  • @hermanfunk – do you know Helen Zille? do you know John Steenhuizen?

    I don’t think so – so please stop presenting your opinion as fact.

  • You have to be impossibly stupid and/or woke (probably the same thing) not to understand and support the DA value offering. If not, what is the alternative you’re seeking?

  • What I found most disconcerting about Steenkamp’s was his statement after this election- ‘and now we are heading for the 2024 election’. Nothing about lets roll up our sleeves and show citizens that ‘We get things done’ referring to potholes etc. A little too transfixed by power. That and his blurt on SAFM- ‘I hate poor people’

  • @richard harding and @Gerrit Marais, I had to listen to enough stupid remarks by both of them to consider them incapable of initiating the change this country needs.
    The DAs value offerings are useless if they don’t consider the majority of the country. The initiative for change has to come from civil society since non of the political parties are able to implement it.

  • A good article marred by your personal feelings of disdain for the DA- it is almost as though you feel the need to fight the party every inch of the way!It is a pity that you exhibit your feelings in such a partisan manner – John Steenhuizen is no worse than other politicians who “spin”!

  • Excellent article, as always. Must say, I find the criticism of DA supporters rather amusing. To blame the media for the woes of the DA is just crazy. Can’t remember many positive articles of ANY party by any of the major media groups, with criticism of the ruling party much more severe by a long shot, and that over many years. The drop in support of the DA, especially in provinces other than the WC (which was dramatic as well), is not due to the media, but a reflection of the worst leadership the party has seen since 1994. With the problem experienced by the ANC the DA had the ideal opportunity to reach out to all voters of all races. But no, rather get rid of good black leaders (you know, the experiment gone wrong, ala Tony Leon), and Zille making this ridiculous “comeback”, just to cause mayhem whenever she opens her mouth, ever at the voting station. Steenhuizen? If he is the best the DA can offer then the party will simply get what they deserve. Keep on contradicting himself, and talking rubbish most of the time, just like Ramaphosa, Malema, De Lille, and McKenzie.

  • I voted for the DA in the last two general elections: as an anti ANC vote and to support Maimane. Never again! Steenhuizen and Zille leave a bad taste in my mouth. Is it the identity politics? The arrogance? Or just the sneaky feeling not of direct racism but a sense of (white) superiority? I am a middle aged white woman who loathes the ANC for the betrayal and corruption but cannot bring myself to vote DA. Clearly I am not alone. With a failing, flailing party in power it was the DA’s to lose – and they did. We desperately need a strong opposition, but not the DA. Another party that will not accept criticism or admit failure or mistakes? No thanks.

  • And what Rebecca has chosen to ignore is the clear evidence that DA-dominated constituencies were “plagued” by delays due to equipment not working, incompetent IEC officials, and probably other ploys that resulted in many DA supporters abandoning their attempt to vote. In my voting area, typical time needed to vote was 3 hours, and evidence gathered via a Facebook poll shows that 25% of voters ended up not voting.

  • Unprofessional and nasty. It would have been easy to point out that the claim to success was the (usual) spin and to critisised the tactics of the DA without descending to a personalized hatchet job it did not deserve. Save that for the criminals amongst us, AKA the ANC.

  • @hermannfunk – to suit your narrative you, like many, entirely disregard the complexities surrounding running a party of more than 3 people in South Africa. I look forward to seeing FUNK having a positive showing at the polls.

  • I read the headline, guessed what would follow and found my suspicions to be confirmed in the comments.

    The DA has obviously chosen a principled course-correction whereby: coalition targets are preferred over majority rule targets; merit-only non-racial appointments are preferred over racial quotas; strong opposition is preferred over opportunistic coalitions; honest debate is preferred over compromise in the face woke-driven and race card-driven faux-indignation based politics; appeal to individual judgement is preferred over acquiring group or tribal based voting; etc.

    While the DA hopes to grow support for such an approach, it recognises that there will be many challenges and limitations: little support from the rural areas, resistance from the hard-right Afrikanerdom, skepiticism and fear of being neglected from the growing squatter camp population, COSATU and ANC attempts to sabotage successes and generate protests at every possible opportunity, and constant carping, mischaracterisation, prejudice and generation of fake narratives by the “Trumpian” commentariat.

  • Coen Gous I’m with you on this one! So disappointed with the DA after the 2016 elections and I certainly don’t like the direction the party has gone in, following Musi, et al’s departures. This political spin is just extremely annoying and insults any of us with half a brain. Musi, please come back! I want to get behind a party that is inclusive and for all South Africans.

  • When the ANC is on the ropes, punch drunk with scandal, hopelessly incompetent, shameless kleptocrats (by their own admission) they could have been knocked out with a single punch but the DA retaliates with verbose platitudes. “Race is not an issue”, their founding principle. On what planet do you shape your policies Mr Steemhuizen? Methinks Planet IRR.
    WAKE UP!

  • Shame on the vitriol here in the comments – Rebecca is merely the child pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

    The problem with the DA leadership is that they cannot do maths – fact is that you have to take into account the demographics of the voting population if you want to win a majority, and in terms of national elections, which should be the priority going forward if we are to rescue this country, even if you win 75% of the white, coloured and indian vote, you still need 45% of black voters to take you over the 50% threshold. You need policies that will attract this vote – so what if you lose votes to the FF+? They in any case probably have a ceiling of 25-30% of the white vote, and maybe a handful of coloured voters. Lose them! Get those black votes – that is what Mmusi did successfully in 2016. Unfortunately the policies required to do this will alienate the white right wing. The problem for this DA in this regard is not the voters, but that many in senior positions in the party are the white right wing – those who chose not to follow Kortbroek into the ANC and rather defected to the DA. Lose them!

    And win 2024…. there is no one else around currently who can do this – sad that 5 years have already been wasted.

  • Just to add another comment- we know the DA did not cover themselves in glory but this attack is so unpleasant, unkind and lopsided because the DA’s character deformities are nothing compared to those of the ANC- the corruption, greed , ineptitude and sheer thievery of many of the comrades.

  • I’m with Coen, Ian and co on this one. Im a bit shocked at the emotive ad hominem attacks on a journalist just pointing out what is plain to see. Whatever the DA’s strategy is, is not working, even if their own leaders won’t admit it. Rebecca wasnt bashing the DA for the administrative performance that some commentators indignantly defend. It is quite clear that no matter what your government performance, people want leaders who reflect who they are, and in a country that is 80% black, replacing someone who looks like you and sounds like you with a suburban white english man is not what the majority of electorate want. Couching a loss as a win is lying to yourself and lying to your supporters. If the DA are serious about being more than a 20% party then they need to find a leader that resonates with more people.

  • This article reminded me of an email I sent to the DA after the 2016 LGE, where I raised my concern with the new DA-council (Langeberg, Western Cape) not representing the values of the party. I quoted a sentence from their website regarding “emerging leaders” and how impressed I was with Mmusi (I reference a CNN interview where he praises the good work Pravin was doing), Herman and Solly (some quick actions which led to positive changes in their metros). My comment was: “Yes, the DA won, and there was an increase in the percentage of votes that went to the DA, but I am almost certain that this has more to do with the provincial and national leadership, than with the local leadership.”
    So I think the issues the DA has had within their leadership structures have damaged confidence levels and this shows in the recent polls.
    The DA went from a confident party showing voters what they can do if we “lent them our votes”, to a party who is happy “to at least be better than the ANC”.
    I voted DA again this time round, but I agree with Elroy above – I hold the DA to a higher standard. I am extremely happy that they lost outright control in a couple of municipalities (including ours). I don’t discount their successes in this election, but I hope that when the DA leadership meet behind closed doors, they have enough self awareness to then actually look for places they can improve. “Better than the ANC” is not good enough. To “spin like all politicians do” is not good enough.

  • Steenhuisen’s spin is not important. What is important is that his party provides excellent services in our municipality! (close to CT). I travel extensively in SA and see how towns are crumbling.

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