South Africa


The DA’s leadership contest and the need for a Boringly Competent Party

The DA’s leadership contest and the need for a Boringly Competent Party
DA's Mpho Phalatse. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle) | DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Ziyaad Douglas)

While much of our political intention has been focused on the internal workings of the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s apparent inability to deliver on his promises, the DA is preparing for a leadership contest of its own.

For the moment, there are only two candidates for the position of national leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA). How the party manages this contest could turn out to be important for next year’s elections.

There is also strong evidence that the party is facing more challenges than ever before, particularly because of the resurgence of the FF+ and, perhaps more importantly, ActionSA. It has to find ways to deal with these possible threats decisively.

It may be worth repeating how important it is to have a strong opposition movement, and strong opposition parties in our politics.

Without them, without the fear for the ANC that it could lose power, there is no check on the governing party’s worst excesses. If voters believe there is no chance that any opposition party, or combination of parties, can seriously challenge for power, they will simply not vote against the ANC, making our politics less accountable. The democratic mechanism designed to ensure that politicians deliver for voters will simply fail.

Perhaps the starting point for the DA’s current problems can be traced back to the 2019 national elections when it lost support in Gauteng. This result led to Mmusi Maimane resigning as leader (after Helen Zille’s return to active politics), followed by Herman Mashaba’s departure to form ActionSA.

Read more in Daily Maverick:DA’s ideological purity collides with South Africa’s reality

The DA, however, has certain strengths that should not be forgotten. It is still the most diverse party in the country, despite all of the problems it has had about race.

Also, its leadership elections have never been so divisive that they have led to internal recriminations, violence and the party splitting. Considering what has happened to so many other opposition parties, this must be an achievement on its own.

People who have lost their challenges for leadership have, however, left the party – sometimes to join another outfit, sometimes appearing to leave politics altogether.

History repeating itself

This brings us to the current moment where Mpho Phalatse, the now-former DA mayor of Johannesburg, is challenging the party’s current leader, John Steenhuisen, for the leadership.

In some ways, this appears to be history repeating itself.

Phalatse was virtually unheard of before 2021’s local elections, when she was announced as the DA’s candidate for mayor of Johannesburg.

Ten years before that, in 2011, the DA had announced another virtual unknown for the position. Although Maimane never became mayor, he did end up as leader of the DA. But, for various reasons, he was unable to maintain the party’s momentum, and eventually resigned.

For Phalatse to contest for power now can be seen as fairly ambitious: she did not have a long public track record in the party before she was catapulted (or perhaps parachuted) into the nomination for the Joburg position. 

Also, if the EFF had not voted for the DA in the mayoral election in council in 2021 (on the suggestion of Mashaba), she may well have faded from public memory by now. In other words, it is perhaps only because of the EFF’s actions that she became a public figure in the first place.

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True allegiances

There is another reason why her candidature is curious: Phalatse recently married Brutus Malada, who is known to be a member of ActionSA.

Questions may be raised about where her true allegiances lie. It is certainly interesting that a person running for the leadership of one party has so recently married a person playing a public role in another. 

Those who question Mzwanele Manyi’s role as head of strategy for the African Transformation Movement while working as the spokesperson for the former leader of the ANC may well want to question Phalatse’s motives.

Her detractors will claim this is all a strategy to run for the position, lose to Steenhuisen, and then publicly move to ActionSA, blaming the racial dynamics in the DA for her loss.

But the real question for the DA and this leadership election may well be about what kind of leader the party needs.

The list of issues they will have to confront is incredibly long, but the most difficult may be the definition of a distinct identity for the party in an increasingly crowded field.

How does the DA chart a position for itself when it is between ActionSA and the FF+ while also working with the ACDP and sometimes the Patriotic Alliance?

There is no doubt the leader of the party, and perhaps their identity, will play a huge role in this. As the party’s most public symbol, they will do more than anyone to sketch this identity.

Steenhuisen’s supporters will point to what they believe are his achievements during this current term in office. They will say he has stemmed the decline in support, and has ensured internal harmony in the party.

But where Steenhuisen may battle is to explain exactly what the DA stands for, and why it is a more attractive proposition than the ANC.

Although he and the DA can point to Cape Town and its administration as evidence that the DA governs better than the ANC, this is likely to be met with claims that it has failed in places such as Tshwane.

Boringly pragmatic

All of this underscores what is really missing from our politics: although many of our discussions are about identity, and are often driven by our racialised inequality, one wonders if there can ever be space for what can be described as a “Boringly Competent Party”.

This could be a party that does not focus on identity, is never seen to purge leaders of one race or another, and is simply able to govern better in a slightly boringly pragmatic way.

Politics in the UK, as The Economist observed this week, appears to be moving towards “the great moderation” after the period of extremism that led to Brexit. Part of this dynamic has been driven by identity politics. 

Although our politics are very different, it may one day be that a majority of people simply want a boringly pragmatic party in charge, and an end to some of the deliberate division that marks our Parliamentary debates.

This party would have a leader of gravitas, who would speak seldom. They would be able to project the image of a person seeking consensus rather than division.

The forging of such an identity may be one way for the DA to increase its share of the vote, and perhaps play a leading role in a post-2024 coalition.

Such are the attractions of identity politics, and so strongly defined is our racialised inequality, however, that this may be almost impossible to achieve. But it may be the best and most certain route to national power. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Neil Parker says:

    I wish Mpho everything of the best – well she’s already managed a ‘dynastic marriage’ so is perhaps well placed to lead the DA and perhaps even bring Action SA back under the DA banner/fold!

  • Ahmed M says:

    John Steenhuisen current wife is the ex wife of action sa Michael Beaumont.
    Da and action sa are way to close to each other especially the leadership.
    Mpho and John are 2 of a kind.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    The boringly pragmatic party gets my vote.

  • L Dennis says:

    What the DA stands for is serving. Serving all people of South Africa. The leadership with years experience has done outstanding work. Illusions of grandeur by inexperienced candidates looking to stand for election is very amusing to say the least. What matters most is the difference you make in peoples life’s. True leaders are service orientated. God bless the DA.

  • Ian McClure says:

    That Beaumont / Action SA can jeopardize an effective opposition ( read the rest of DM today )because of ” love issues ” also smacks of ( almost “treasonable” ) ” fiddling while RSA burns .
    Wake up . Shame on you all .
    Stephen , make some sacrifices for a proven non-racist , honest , efficient administration , and stop doing the ” talking head ” bit for your radio SABC job .

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Any chance of “joint leadership?” This might be the cure all solution to the racial divide that prevails in South Africa today – this would be my pragmatic leadership suggestion, but it would, as sure as hell, not be boring!

  • Alan Watkins says:

    “But where Steenhuisen may battle is to explain exactly what the DA stands for, and why it is a more attractive proposition than the ANC.”

    Are you serious? There are many many speeches and articles on record that state this again and again. This is either poor journalism (you are not doing the most basic research” or deliberately not seeing what is right in front of you.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    The biggest difference between the ANC and the DA is cadre deployment (aka corruption and incompetence) v individual with integrity who is the most appropriately qualified and with experience to meet the requirements of the relevant position (aka competence and service delivery).


    The only guarantee in this race is that if Phalatse loses she will in the next month or so resign blaming racism in the DA. We,ve seen it all before

  • David Walker says:

    @Alan Watkins. That was exactly my thought. What the DA stands for has been explained again and again, and demonstrated again and again in Cape Town and the Western Cape. But for Stephen’s benefit: social democracy, a capable state, a business friendly environment, economic growth, non-racialism, assistance for the poor and the rule of law.

  • Roland Gemmell says:

    While I like what the DA has achieved, I am wary of individuals within the party. There was a black lady as the face of DA on posters for mayor of Ekurhuleni. Even before the votes were counted, she had “moved on” assuming that she would not be the mayor. Surprise, surprise, a DA candidate became the mayor. Will Phalatse stick around if she does not become the leader of the DA?

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