South Africa

ANALYSIS

Steenhuisen’s ‘fact-finding’ trip to Ukraine brings back few facts and a lot of negative noise

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

DA leader John Steenhuisen’s controversial ‘fact-finding’ mission to Ukraine is over – and judging by a noticeably brief report-back, the DA is keen to turn the page.

When DA leader John Steenhuisen announced unexpectedly on 1 May that he had arrived in Ukraine for a “fact-finding” visit, he stated that the reason for his trip was because “in the era of fake news and propaganda”, only by assessing a situation first-hand can one “truly know what is happening”.

Said Steenhuisen: “We owe it to the people of Ukraine to tell the unfiltered truth about what is taking place there.” 

But anyone tuning in on Monday morning to hear Steenhuisen “brief the nation” – in the DA’s words – upon his return to South Africa would have heard strikingly few facts. Steenhuisen’s public report-back lasted barely 15 minutes, with no opportunity for questions from the media.

The disconnect between the grandiose terms in which Steenhuisen’s mission was initially framed and the perfunctory nature of his report-back gives the impression that the DA leader may have been advised to turn the page on his expedition rather speedily.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Steenhuisen’s trip has been a PR disaster. He received a fairly complimentary editorial from the Sunday Times for establishing himself as “a man of action” in contrast to President Cyril Ramaphosa. News24 editor Adriaan Basson suggested that the opportunity to “show statesmanship and moral leadership” could play well for Steenhuisen down the line in terms of his personal political ambitions.

But it is hard to imagine that the trip has done much as a net positive for the party Steenhuisen leads. Though social media is rarely a reliable gauge of wider political sentiment, those expressing the most positive views towards Steenhuisen’s trip appeared to be members of the DA faithful. At the same time, there has also been a significant amount of criticism of the visit stemming from self-described DA supporters who support the condemnation of Russia but have urged Steenhuisen to focus his energy instead on the myriad problems within the borders of his home country.

It is highly unlikely that the episode will draw any previously opposed new voters to the DA, while it seems to have irritated some existing DA voters and possibly hardened the attitudes of those already predisposed to dislike the party.

It is important to note that the vast majority of the criticism did not stem from support for Russia, but from either the above-mentioned frustration that Steenhuisen’s energies would be better spent on domestic issues, or anger at Steenhuisen’s perceived arrogance in portraying himself as the ambassador for “the majority of South Africans”.

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In reality, it is totally unclear what view the majority of South Africans hold on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. A safe bet would be that most are too preoccupied with more immediate and direct crises to give it much thought, if any at all. As a number of political analysts have pointed out, there is no indication that any foreign policy issues whatsoever play a significant role in the voting choices of South Africans.  

The sense that Steenhuisen anointed himself as South Africa’s one true spokesperson, however, clearly did not play well – and does little to dispel the reputation for “white arrogance” that the party has gathered in some quarters.

Steenhuisen did himself no favours by suggesting in a social media post from Ukraine that the impact of the war was already being felt in the rising “price of chips in SA school tuckshops”. It was an observation clearly intended to bolster his contention that “Ukraine’s problems are our problems too”, but a strangely chosen example: one which instantly earned him the new Twitter nickname “Slapchips Steenhuisen” and a barrage of mockery.

Some of the attacks directed at Steenhuisen have been churlish or ill-informed. It is not unusual for opposition politicians globally to carry out this kind of visit; it is also not true that Steenhuisen has been invisible at the site of local disasters like the KwaZulu-Natal floods, as some critics claimed.

But the DA leader has scored an undeniable own goal in opening himself and his party to the tsunami of whataboutery that will follow this trip: every time conflict erupts in a zone not involving white Europeans – and plenty are already raging – you can expect Steenhuisen to be asked why he is not spending six days tweeting video messages from that site.

There are indications that the visit was organised fairly last-minute, and as such may not have been particularly thoroughly considered in advance. Daily Maverick contacted The Brenthurst Foundation – revealed by Carien du Plessis to have funded Steenhuisen’s mission – to ask why it did not bring a multiparty group of MPs to Ukraine rather than only the DA leader.

Brenthurst Foundation director Greg Mills (a Daily Maverick contributor) responded that the idea was mooted, “but given the timescale and complexity of the logistics it was not practicable on this occasion”.

Mills added: “Perhaps in future.” 

There are those who have pointed out that since the trip was privately funded, taking nothing from either South African state coffers or even the DA’s own resources, the criticism levelled at Steenhuisen is unwarranted and unfair. Seen in this light, the reasoning goes, Steenhuisen’s visit should be viewed no differently from that of any other private South African citizen who decides to fly to Ukraine to assess the situation.

This argument would be more valid if, as mentioned, Steenhuisen had not repeatedly framed himself as visiting on behalf of the South African people as a whole. In his report-back, the DA leader said he told everyone he met in Ukraine the same thing: “I pledged the support of South Africa to their cause.”     

However convinced Steenhuisen may be of the righteousness of his stance, and however likely it is that the anti-Russian position is morally justified, Steenhuisen simply has no authority to make such sweeping statements. This kind of hubris gets people’s backs up, and could easily have been averted through more temperate language.

But there is another concern, which is that Steenhuisen’s mission might backfire more seriously. The opposition has every right to point out the governing party’s failings when it comes to foreign policy or any other issue. Indeed, this is one of its core functions. But if Steenhuisen genuinely hopes to persuade the ANC government to change diplomatic course over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, his methods are high-risk.

The news that – as Steenhuisen announced on Monday – he told “mayors, governors, members of Parliament, members of the opposition, former prime ministers, academics, leaders of civil society and ordinary citizens” in Ukraine that the ANC’s support for Russia stemmed solely from “its own narrow financial interests” is unlikely to do anything other than provoke the ANC into doubling down on its stance.

Of course, Steenhuisen may well be correct in his assessment. But it would be an extraordinary government – one South Africa certainly does not have – that would greet this as anything other than a provocation.

If Steenhuisen was simultaneously serious about winning over the hearts and minds of ordinary South Africans to the Ukrainian cause, he would have taken the opportunity of his report-back to address some of the perceptions circulating locally – particularly given his stated aim of cutting through the “fake news” and bringing back an “unfiltered” account. These concerns include the documented existence of neo-Nazi elements within the Ukrainian military and the racism shown towards Africans in Ukraine.

In fairness, perhaps the DA leader had originally planned a more comprehensive report-back – one which would seek sincerely to engage with myths, misperceptions or complexities around the conflict. In the end, however, it was apparently thought best for Steenhuisen to keep it short and move on swiftly.

Meanwhile, it appears that the foreign policy bug is politically contagious. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has announced that it will lead a picket outside the French embassy later this month “to demand the withdrawal of France from the continent”. Are any opposition politicians in South Africa actually tuned into the mood of the country they live in? DM  

 

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All Comments 25

  • Analysis is the wrong word for this biased article. When it comes to the DA, some journalists would rather swallow glass than admit the DA did something right…

    As for who has what authority, the ANC has no moral authority about anything any more nevermind the fact they are supporting a dictator yet again. Considering the scale of failure of the ANC, not just in foreign policy but everywhere in literally every sphere of government, we should be thankful somebody finally said something and showed the world that we are not all in agreement with our mafia state foreign policy led by the ANC. Steenhuisens assessment that the ANCs view on Russia being driven by personal and financial interests is completely correct, and it is here that the outrage should be.

    • When the US goes around bombing countries the DA says nothing. Russia is no more a dictatorship as the US or other western nations. Most Americans would prefer a party other than the Democrats or Republicans. The US Supreme court wants to ban abortion despite the fact that about six in ten Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In France in the last elections the only choice that the people had was between a fascist Putin lackey and Macron who regard French workers as lazy white trash!! As for Ukraine, Zelensky is banning all the opposition parties so he can become a dictator. Steenhuisen does not seem to have a problem with that !!

      • What does your view of the USA and its abortion legislation have to do with what’s happening in the Ukraine at the moment?
        If you are trying to tell me the USA should not be our moral authority, I am completely in agreement with you, still has nothing to do with JS visit to Ukraine.

        • How can the US be a democracy when the majority of the people want legal abortions and they are now making them illegal. Same with public health and taxing the rich ! However people say that Putin is a dictator they had elections in Russia last year all major parties support the war same as in the US after 911 !

          • …interestingly my children are likewise prone to justifying the first wrong by invoking a 2nd one.

      • So, you feel because Zelensky has since the unprovoked invasion by Russian forces declared martial law and banned all Russia-sympathizing parties and propaganda outlets, that the Ukrainian people, by now mostly displaced if not injured or dead, deserve what they are suffering? Zelensky acting to become a dictator?? A proper dictator would round up and lock away all citizens even suspected of supporting the country’s invader, and line up their ring-leaders. Like Stalin did to 22 000 of the Polish leadership in Katyn in 1940. Seems to me it’s Putin, not Zelensky, who is working to pick up the crown of King of Dictators, last worn by his hero Stalin.
        Was the DA supposed to condemn NATO when it finally decided to put a rapid end to the genocidal Serbian atrocities in Bosnia and across Yugoslavia?
        Anyway, let’s keep your views on abortion in the US, and Macron’s alleged perception (that black french workers are less lazy or trashy than their white colleagues), out of a premature comment on all that Steenhuisen might have learned about the situation in Ukraine under murderous attack by their bullying neighbour, until he has compiled a full report.

        • These parties represent 20% of the population concentrated in the East of the country, making it easier for the Russians to set up a puppet government in Donbass. Ukraine is a corrupt failed state with a per capita income less than in 1990. Ukraine harbours Fascist and Jihadist groups and commits aggression against the people in the Donbass. The country has been destabilised by both Russian and Western imperialism

        • Ukraine activist Kateryna Handzyuk dies from acid attack

          A Ukrainian anti-corruption activist has died from wounds caused by an acid attack, sparking local protests and concern from European officials over growing violence against civil society.

          Kateryna Handzyuk’s investigations into police graft and political corruption in her native Kherson, a Black Sea port, had angered local officials. In late July, a man doused her with a litre of sulphuric acid when she left her house.

          Handzyuk suffered burns to more than 30% of her body. She continued to speak out against corruption from her hospital bed and called for a thorough investigation into her attackers. She had 11 operations before she finally succumbed to her injuries on Sunday.

  • More DA bashing from you. He never comes over well in set piece events but nobody was murdered and no crime was committed. As you say some crtisism has been churlish, and your’s counts amongst them, in this over long labored hatchet job.

    • . . . to put it MILDLY.
      I have deduced that Rebecca Davis must get paid by the word.
      Thank you John S for being less prolix than her.

      May I add that Steenhuisen’s publicly demonstrated concern for the Ukrainian victims of Putin’s rage has done a lot to relieve my embarrassment as a South African, at my country’s lily-livered response to this outrage by Russia. May the world now realize that not all South Africans align themselves with the ANC’s small circle of foreign friends – the League of Polecats-of-the-World.
      Steenhuisen for Minister of International Relations, in the coming Coalition Government of SA.

  • Your article stinks. Why can we not see comments as on Businesss live. I am not interested in commenting on your article do me a favor focus on the corrupt that still leads and plunders and act like rudderless ships going no where. I applaud John Steenhuizen for going to Ukraine. God bless the DA.

  • Listening to the online “report back” from Steehuizen – South African flags and all – we didn’t hear one fact about the war in Ukraine!

  • It is the lead up to the National Elections and many believe ANC political actions are based upon ties to Russia, As such he takes the soft blow knock now when many headlines are still flying around, Zuma nuclear corruption, Russian oil heads for SA as sanctions squeeze Putin, and even today’s article below “ANC’s manganese gold mine joint venture with sanctioned Russian Oligarch”. Take one for the team now and use it as I told you so when the real fight starts at elections and a new President (Vice President) is needed for a coalition.

  • I don’t understand people. Steenhuisen setting the DA apart from the ANC is a good thing. It’s also smart move to secure his party and province connections and potentially investment/funding in the future, particularly when trust in the ANC govt is at an all time low.

    But maybe this is because I don’t have a twitter account anymore. It seems people critical of the DA love twitter.

  • Rebecca, may I remind you of a 1947 statement attributed to Sir Winston Churchill in which he reminded the UK’s House of Commons that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.” In a similar fashion, capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.

    In a similar fashion, for all the faults of the DA they are the best we have by a wide margin. Or, instead of just criticising, are you actually putting forward one or more other parties as being the best hope for SA?

    No? I didnt think so

  • The South African media bemoans the fact that we do not have a robust and viable opposition party but in the same breath, seem to delight in bashing that same opposition party. Now THAT is an own goal if there ever was one.

  • It seems that while Steenhuisen’s intentions are generally good, once again he comes across as misguided, impulsive and keen to put himself and his party in the spotlight, especially when doing so will show up the ANC. His time would be far better spent addressing the real issues that plague the Western Cape. He could start with making Cape Town – yet again voted one of the best cities in the world – more inclusive. We can not own that title until all of Cape Town is considered when awarding that accolade.

    • “It seems that while Steenhuisen’s intentions are generally good, once again he comes across as misguided, impulsive and keen to put himself and his party in the spotlight, especially when doing so will show up the ANC.”

      That is what a politician does for a living! Getting his party (the DA) into power when the ruling party (the anc) is busy failing the people of South Africa!

  • The DA has the right position on the Russian invasion, but this trip to Ukraine was a miscalculation.

    It comes across as hypocritical and political opportunism rather than genuine concern for the people of Ukraine. What support can John Steenhuisen really offer to the people of Ukraine? Why does he need to “see for himself” and “determine the facts”? What special talents does John have that professional journalists and local experts do not?

    After hearing his sophomoric “analysis” at his “address to the nation” yesterday it became clear John in fact has no special knowledge or insights, and simply regurgitated the points already made by his private sponsors, the Brenthurst Foundation.

    The DA often has the right position on issues but gets the message and tone completely wrong, coming across as sanctimonious, hypocritical and holier-than-thou.

    This is of course much better than the stunning corruption and incompetence of the ANC, but in the end the DA is a political party and needs to win elections so it should care how it comes across to voters and think more carefully about how it comes across to the SA electorate.

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