DA CONGRESS 2023
Democratic Alliance expected to play it safe and close ranks behind Steenhuisen before SA’s critical 2024 polls
Incumbent leader John Steenhuisen heads for landslide re-election at the congress this weekend – but is he the right person to lead the party into South Africa’s 2024 crucial polls with a population weary of load shedding, poor service delivery and the cost-of-living crisis?
The DA is set to unite behind John Steenhuisen at the federal congress this weekend, returning him to the party leadership with a resounding majority over his sole rival, former Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse.
So certain is Steenhuisen’s victory, a DA MP told DM168 this week, that there is a general feeling that the incumbent leader has taken the race against Phalatse “unnecessarily seriously”.
Phalatse is widely viewed as the more charismatic and publicly likeable figure of the two, but her comparative lack of top-level leadership experience – bar a short stint as executive mayor of Johannesburg – has meant that she has been unable to win the support of most delegates.
“Mpho is not a formidable opponent. Her only [political] space is Joburg – and there she doesn’t even have support from half the caucus,” said the MP.
The greatest support for her candidacy so far has seemed to come from the Western Cape. Her campaign manager, Solomon Maila, however, cautioned against making assumptions about provincial blocs of support.
“Don’t confuse provinces with individual provincial leaders who only have one vote each at congress. In the DA, no structure of the party is allowed to endorse a particular candidate. That’s our policy position,” Maila told DM168.
Western Cape divisions
The Western Cape is the DA’s power base, and the provincial branch of the party is the strongest and most influential in the country. It may also be the most divided.
DM168 has learnt from party insiders that tensions had emerged when current Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis was recalled from Parliament to stand as the DA’s mayoral candidate during the 2021 local government elections.
Those who did not agree with the decision felt that Hill-Lewis was imposed on them by the leadership duo of Steenhuisen and DA federal council chair Helen Zille. This resentment has translated into an unwillingness to back Steenhuisen in the current leadership race.
However, senior Western Cape leaders are aware that Phalatse stands little chance of unseating the incumbent, leading to a decision to endorse neither candidate publicly.
Endorsing Phalatse and having her lose would be detrimental down the line in Western Cape factional battles.
One senior DA member in the Western Cape said there was little enthusiasm in the province for either Steenhuisen or Phalatse.
“Steenhuisen is as lame as Mpho. The DA is going backwards – he has no charm with the general public, black or white.
“Mpho was supported by the Western Cape to contest but she has not put any work into her campaign.”
Approached for comment by DM168, Western Cape provincial leader Tertuis Simmers denied that there was a reluctance to give Steenhuisen vocal support.
“The perception is incorrect of our province favouring Mpho,” Simmers said.
“A clear majority of support from our almost 550 delegates is in support of leadership continuity [backing Steenhuisen], as the 2024 national and provincial elections will be the most important elections since 1994 and be a springboard to the local government elections of 2026.”
Need for stability will win the day for Steenhuisen
Among those backing Steenhuisen, former DA Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela summed up the prevailing sentiment.
“When he took over, I was one of the people who was concerned. But he has stabilised the party and arrested the decline,” Madikizela told DM168 this week.
The same feeling was expressed by most DA figures canvassed by DM168.
One DA MP who was previously sceptical about Steenhuisen said he had been won over by the leader’s “developing political awareness”, the fact that he had not overly sought to centralise power, and that he had “opened the door for talented people to emerge”.
As an example of the latter, the MP cited Baxolile Nodada – a first-time MP who was given the critical portfolio of education and was “rising to the occasion”.
With the next general election only a year away, it is felt that Steenhuisen is the safest pair of hands to which the DA can entrust its leadership.
A senior party insider told DM168 that recent polling undertaken for the party had determined that Steenhuisen was relatively popular among undecided voters.
“It is the undecided group that is going to decide at the next election, and the focus on cost of living and load shedding has improved [Steenhuisen’s] numbers with this group substantially,” the source explained.
No pressure, John
It is generally expected that this will be Steenhuisen’s final term as leader, despite there being no technical term limits in the party.
DA congress presiding officer Greg Krumbock told DM168 that this was because no limits were needed: “Generally, in my experience in the DA, [leaders] don’t overstay their welcome.”
This will raise the stakes for Steenhuisen going into the critical 2024 polls. In addition to the personal pressure on him, the DA – like all other parties – will be trying to combat the growing problem of voter apathy, with ever fewer citizens choosing to take part in elections.
This has been especially evident in the voter registration rates of South Africans in the 18 to 29 age group.
The DA’s electoral support peaked at 22.23% in the 2014 elections. It had dipped to 20.77% by 2019. A survey released by the Social Research Foundation this week measured current support for the ANC at 52% and the DA at 24%. The poll canvassed the views of 1,517 registered voters across a range of age groups, races and regions.
Not everybody is convinced that Steenhuisen is the leader to raise the DA’s electoral game. University of Johannesburg politics Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana told DM168 that he believed the DA would not improve its electoral fortunes with Steenhuisen at the helm.
“Steenhuisen is Helen Zille’s proxy and does not come across as someone with conviction. He is not endearing. What he does appear as is someone who is the protector of white interests,” Ndletyana said.
He added that there were indications that white voters in South Africa had become more conservative over time, meaning that the DA now faced serious competition from parties further to the right on the ideological spectrum, such as the Freedom Front Plus.
Most analysts agree, however, that the general electoral landscape has never looked more promising for the DA than now – with a population weary of load shedding, poor service delivery and the cost-of-living crisis.
The DA is now confidently predicting the decline of the ANC to below the crucial 50% threshold: a recent statement from the party referred to “the approach of South Africa’s first coalition dispensation in 2024”.
Never-ending tenure of Helen Zille set to continue
The potential for a national coalition to take power in South Africa after the 2024 polls is one of the reasons cited by insiders as to why it is considered necessary to keep Zille in the DA leadership.
Zille’s institutional knowledge and political experience have made her an indispensable figure in the party’s coalition wheeling and dealing.
At the federal congress this weekend, Zille will be re-elected unopposed as the party’s federal chair. Despite Zille’s polarising reputation, one DA MP said that she had to be acknowledged for “never fumbling in terms of her actual job description”.
Another MP said that, although Zille’s controversial personal statements were the subject of continuing embarrassment and concern in the party, she was “able to hold and steer the DA machinery with professional obsession”.
He added: “It is better for the DA when she is in [the party].”
The most tightly contested race of the congress by some margin will be the eight-way dash for the party’s three deputy federal chairperson positions.
Among the contenders are Cape Town heavyweight JP Smith, former DA chief whip Natasha Mazzone, former spokesperson Refiloe Nt’sekhe, and spokesperson and MP Solly Malatsi.
Smith enjoys a large following in the Cape metro, which has a high number of delegates to the congress, but is considered deeply divisive elsewhere.
Mazzone has a high profile, but is not well liked in the parliamentary caucus – which led to her removal as chief whip.
Malatsi has received a powerful endorsement from Hill-Lewis – prompting speculation that Malatsi and Hill-Lewis could make a popular and successful leadership duo in future.
Malatsi told DM168: “I believe that I have done enough in terms of the canvassing of individuals, but in politics you can never be sure until the votes are counted.”
Smith, a councillor in Cape Town for more than 20 years, is a vocal proponent of the devolution of policing powers to municipalities. He often clashes with ruling party figures such as Police Minister Bheki Cele over policing in Cape Town.
Smith told DM168 that he would bring a vast amount of political and governance expertise to the deputy federal chairperson role if elected, and that it would be “useful” to have a strong voice for federalism in the top structures of the DA. DM168
How voting works at the DA congress
Almost 2,000 delegates will cast their votes for a party leader, federal chairperson, three deputy federal chairpersons, one federal finance chairperson, the deputy chairpersons of the Federal Council and a chairperson of the Federal Council.
In addition to leadership, delegates will vote on constitutional amendments.
Though congress is fully in-person, voting will take place electronically. On Saturday, 1 April, there will be voting on resolutions and amendments. On Sunday, voting for leaders will take place between 6am and 9am.
Congress presiding officer Greg Krumbock told DM168 that one of the things he prided himself on was that the DA congresses always started on time.
“We’re not a minute late when we start … You’ll know from other parties, it often can take a day just to sort out the registration. We don’t have a single disputed delegate coming to congress.”
Krumbock said that the timing of the congress was ideal, as it would allow the party leader to begin focusing on the 2024 polls with a clear mandate.
“This congress is important to us because we want to showcase to the country what an internal democracy should look like. And with the way we conduct our elections, that we’re ready to govern,” he added. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.