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The DA’s big-time, on-time congress felt refreshingly normal in disturbed times

The DA’s big-time, on-time congress felt refreshingly normal in disturbed times
John Steenhuisen celebrates his win as party leader at the Democratic Alliance Federal Congress that took place in Midrand over the weekend. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s been a while since the Democratic Alliance was able to meet in person. For this political addict, it was an opportunity to see how the one big party outside the Congress Movement is doing. For its delegates, it was about the DA hitting the big time. On time.

Gallagher Estate. The site of so many political conferences and conflicts. 

There was the ANC Policy Conference in 2007, where the only people who mattered were the man who now writes letters to Paul Mashatile and the man who now fights criminal charges by pressing charges against a journalist.

There was that time when Julius Malema won an ANC Youth League conference, ran into a VIP room, kissed a baby, and ran out again to make a speech. And then threatened to change the entire ANC.

Malema 2.0: Time to get worried

But this time, the tsunami was of a different colour – it was blue, and it was punctual in nature.

When I arrived at lunchtime on Saturday, 1 April, for an on-air shift, all the journalists made the same point: “They’re running on time, Stephen, even ahead of schedule.” 

It was said again and again. And, while it may sound silly, it’s important.

da congress steenhuisen

John Steenhuisen celebrates his win as party leader at the Democratic Alliance Federal Congress that took place in Midrand at the weekend. The congress revealed the first sight of the party’s election campaign strategy: Vote for us or Julius Malema becomes deputy president in an ‘EFF Doomsday Coalition’. (Photo: Supplied)

So much of our political culture comes from parties that stem from what is often called the Congress Movement. There’s the ANC itself, the SACP, the EFF, the IFP, Cope and the UDM. They all have their roots in this movement. Often, their events do not run on time, not even close.

So stark has this become that when he took over the ANC, President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed it would be the beginning of a new era of time-keeping. So dismally has the President and his ANC failed in this, he is not even able to start his own national televised addresses on time.

It is also true, of course, that the higher the level of contestation in a political party, the later things will start. And perhaps the real meaning of the DA’s punctuality was that this was not really a contested conference.

Many of the speeches were about the ANC, about the need to “remove the ANC in 2024”. DA delegates are near-obsessive about this.

It is to be expected, though. For years, the ANC never mentioned the DA. And then, from around 2011 when Malema told thousands of ANC supporters at FNB Stadium that the DA “is for white people, the ANC is for you”, the ruling party started talking about the main opposition more and more.

How parties talk about each other, and how often they talk about each other, can be a reflection of how threatened they feel and by whom.

This weekend’s conference was about the start of the DA’s election campaign and, for the party, that is all about the ANC. That is what it believes will get the vote.

da congress phalatse

Mpho Phalatse addresses delegates at the Democratic Alliance Federal Conference. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Most delegates were happy to talk about who they were supporting as federal leader and, for almost everyone, that was John Steenhuisen. Some said they felt they didn’t know his opponent, Mpho Phalatse, nearly as well.

Then came the candidates’ speeches.

It must say something about the DA that it, probably alone in our politics, is able to allow both leadership candidates to speak uninterrupted for five minutes to delegates – on live television.

It is impossible to imagine this happening in the ANC. Since 2007, the leader and the deputy leader have had to be introduced together, and even walk around stadiums together, so that there will be no overt booing or cheering.

Do qualifications matter in politics?

In his speech, Steenhuisen focused on how sees the future of the DA, which was clearly his theme for the conference.

But Phalatse was more personal, talking up her qualifications as a doctor, and suggesting that qualifications were important.

Read more in Daily Maverick: In her final leadership push Phalatse takes a swipe at Steenhuisen, invoking comparisons with Zuma

Considering that Steenhuisen’s opponents have often mocked him about his final qualification being a matric, her message was pretty obvious.

This does lead to a fascinating debate about whether qualifications matter in politics. We are currently being led by our second lawyer since 1994. We have also had an economist and a miner as our head of state since democracy. But possibly the best politician was the one who only had what was then called a “Standard Six”.

As public administration professor Kedibone Phago has pointed out, perhaps some of the problems that we have in government are because of a lack of qualifications. This is supported by the fact that more than half of our municipal councillors have only a school qualification.

Voting day

Saturday finished early. Yes, really.

Sunday rose, bright, shiny, and, at Gallagher, blue.

For most delegates, the day started by voting on an electronic system. They had between 6am and 8am to do it. Then they had to wait until 2.30pm for the results.

Steenhuisen got to give another speech, this time reflecting on his previous term as leader, talking about how he had consolidated the party after the departure of Mmusi Maimane.

Then came the election results.

There were, literally, no surprises. Steenhuisen won with 83% of the vote.

It was interesting to note the production of it all – the pre-recorded announcements of the positions ahead of each result; the way the presiding officer and the deputy presiding officers came to the podium… All of it was made for television. There was even a harmonic note underneath it all to give the air more tension.

When the announcement of the federal leader finally came, Steenhuisen came on to the stage, wife, daughters and all. His little one appeared to thoroughly enjoy the experience, jiving to the music.

Strangely, no television camera was able to record the immediate reaction of Phalatse. She appeared to be in a holding area somewhere.

‘Doomsday coalition’

Then came Steenhuisen’s real speech, the outline of how he sees the future of the DA, and perhaps the country.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Steenhuisen declares Julius Malema and the EFF ‘political enemy number one’ after being re-elected

He wants the DA to create a coalition of opposition parties, and of civil society movements. Basically, anyone who wants to work against the ANC, and who shares similar values, will be invited to join.

He mentioned the “EFF Doomsday Coalition”, where the ANC and the EFF work together and “nationalise everything in sight”, many times in his speech.

The weekend was the first sight of the DA’s election campaign strategy: Vote for us or Julius Malema becomes deputy president.

In some ways, this owes its roots to the party’s 2009 campaign, where the DA simply used the phrase, “Stop Zuma”.

But the idea of a coalition of different groups is important. It is possibly the first real step towards countering what has, up until now, been the ANC’s greatest strength – its ability to represent constituencies of people across the country who speak different languages, come from different classes and who have different views about life.

Steenhuisen appears to be suggesting that the DA needs to be able to form its own version of that.

It won’t be easy. As events in Tshwane have shown, working as a coalition can be incredibly difficult. And there are many reasons why it could be difficult for people from different groups and parties to trust each other.

Even as people were still packing up, Action SA chair Micheal Beaumont tweeted: “It is good that the DA appears to be dismissing prior ideas of coalition with the ANC and joining the efforts of @Action4SA, @IFP_National @VFPlus and @A_C_D_P to establish a rainbow coalition platform. But make no mistake, the DA is joining something that others have started.” 

This is an indication of how difficult all of this could be. But the idea deserves attention because it is probably going to take a movement like this to remove the ANC from power.

After all of this, there was just time for an incredibly tetchy interview with Helen Zille (the title of her autobiography Not Without a Fight is well chosen), and then it was time to pack up and leave.

As I was walking out, I suddenly realised something.

The DA had held its elections with no rancour, no shouting and screaming. It hadn’t even had to bring in outside people to do it, just an electronic voting system agreed to by all candidates.

Sure, there was no serious contestation as no one had expected Steenhuisen to lose. But still.

Delegates and leaders will probably feel energised and refreshed in the way that people sometimes do when spending time with like-minded friends with a single opponent.

But, on Monday morning, the news cycle starts again. And so will an immense amount of hard work for those in the DA who believe they can lead a united opposition against the ANC.

As for me, the day starts with the thud and the percolation of the coffee maker. But at least I’m making progress with my fight against a common addiction. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    South Africans must move on from judging people by the colour of one’s skin. It has no more bearing on who you are than the colour of one’s hair. Open your eyes. There is only one party that can drag South Africa out of its death throes and it held its conference in Gallagher over the weekend. All who care about South Africa and the people who live in SA must join the Moonshot campaign to save SA from extinction.

    • Grumpy Old Man says:

      Paddy; we need to be just a little careful when we advise others ‘to move on’ We each of us enjoy our own reality & whether you, or I, agree or not, we live in a country where for many ‘optics’ matter a great deal. It’s not irrational at all for people to more closely identify with someone who looks like they do & speaks their language. When people vote it’s not only on the basis of who they think will do a ‘better job’ but also on the basis of who best understands me, my circumstances & is more likely to be responsive to & for me!

      • D'Esprit Dan says:

        Well put! Having spent much time travelling to the UK and mainland Europe over the last wo decades, politics in those countries can be as ‘tribal’ as ours, in the sense that there are large swathes of voters who stick to a single party out of loyalty no matter what – I’ve seen people change allegiances to football teams before political parties. They believe that the Tories or Labour represent them, their values and aspirations and would never consider voting for anyone else no matter how bad their preferred choice is. Look at Trump supporters in the US as well. Closer to home, the majority of white South Africans voted for the Nats and worse for over 40 years, despite all the evidence of the evils of apartheid. Optics matter in our country, especially given our history – and I sincerely hope that the DA has excellent leaders in its ranks who are not white, or we’d have to question what kind of black leadership they’re attracting. All a bit confusing!

      • John Smythe says:

        I fully understand and agree with you, Grumpy. But, just as the 1994 elections were the make or break of our nation, 2024 is also going to be the make or break. 1994 happened because SA couldn’t anymore and “Doomsday” would have been the result but for great people like Tutu and Mandela. And so, 2024 will also define whether or not SA will be “Doomsday”. Ironic that it was the very party that stopped the Doomsday in 1994 that is now re-creating it. For once, and for once only, the masses must look past the colour and see reality and give it a chance. There isn’t another option. So, if not the DA, then at least one of the civil society movements if that better suits them. The DA needs to be challenged all the time by their coalition partners. That’s a good thing. But if one lets skin colour and a legacy alliance get in the way of basic logic, then one will get what one voted for. This isn’t Europe. If the masses think it’s bad now…..

  • Geoff Krige says:

    The DA may be orderly and on time, but they have (again) missed a big opportunity to show the country that they really are a party for all races. The leaders chosen show a DA still mired in colonialism. So we have an ANC mired in corruption and a DA mired in colonialism. Neither can unite the country and lead the country. So who can we the people vote for?

    • Alan Watkins says:

      Just because colonialism was carried out by whites and because the leaders the DA chose were largely white does not mean that the DA is “still mired in colonialism”. Try extending this argument to
      – black people (still mired in tribalism, witchcraft etc etc? Really?)
      – Indian people, Moslems, Christians (still mired in religious conflicts responsible for the deaths of million? Really)
      – Germans (still mired in Nazi Facism? Really?)
      No, attach blame to people for what they do and have done, not what their ancestors have done.

  • A Concerned Citizen says:

    Hopefully, the future of politics in South Africa. Meritocratic, values- and respect-based leadership and policy. Well done, DA.

  • ricardophil1950 says:

    What a great overview of a super positive conference. A
    coalition of opposition is definitely the way. Behind that they should attract all of those communities who have already ‘taken back’ their towns at grass routes by working the broken window strategy.

    • Geoff Krige says:

      If the DA had leaders with a broader perspective than the John-Helen colonialists most of the good opposition would still be a part of the DA. The major problem the DA has is its inability to work with anyone who doesn’t think and look and talk like them. The DA and coalitions? I don’t think so

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    I must confess, I’ve heard and read quite a few analysts and punters on radio and on the Internet this morning talking about moving beyond race in South African politics, which I think would be superb. However, it does still matter and I shudder to think that for a party which claims that the vast majority of its members are black, to only have one black African in the top leadership group, is disappointing. Are there no competent black people in the DA outside of Solly Malatsi? I know I’ll probably get crucified on here for this view, but the optics play into the hands of the Doomsday Coalition, who, devoid of anything positive to reflect on (if they told the truth), will hammer on about race and apartheid. It would have been a masterstroke to remove that stick to beat the DA with, if the top brass were more representative. That said, perhaps a broad alignment between moderate parties in SA will be able to mop enough of the vote that will remain outside of the DA’s grasp to get rid of the ANC is it’s appalling spawn in the EFF.

  • Agf Agf says:

    I’m delighted that Steenhuisen has remained as leader. All strength to him.

  • Blingtofling HD says:

    Beautifully written. A spirit of lightheartedness filters through it. Yes indeed. Order vs chaos will always restore your soul and bring a positive note for a better future. I am confident that Dr Palatse will graciously accept that her time has not come yet. But investing in her enthusiasm can only be in SA’s future. DA you excelled!

    • John Smythe says:

      Agree. And I don’t believe it’s over for Dr Phalatse. The DA needed to continue the momentum it’s gathered under Steenhuisen. I hope Mpho Phalatse shows now that she is a true leader, with respect, understanding and loyalty to the party, its leader and the people it represents. And that she shows her face to the people now and in the run up to the elections. She’ll get to the top. She only needs to be patient. If she crosses the floor now or ever, she’ll be a nothing. She has to be true blue.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    A meritocracy is all good and well, and a return to one’s root beliefs and values admirable. But I just cannot see a national government led by a man who speaks only English and Afrikaans. If a white man or woman is standing for the presidency, he/she is going to have to be fluent in a black African language, at the very least. How else do you think you’ll reach 80% of the population?

    • A Concerned Citizen says:

      How much Tshivenda do you hear Cyril speaking ever? This view is short-sighted. The language of government is English. I understand the appeal of relatable role models, but speaking an African language isn’t a requirement to lead.

    • Jennifer Hughes says:

      Absolutely agree. But I’m glad to hear the DA is talking about collaborating with other parties, that’s a step forward.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    I have been critical of the DA up to now but the Conference was a brilliant start to the 2024 general election campaign – which will determine whether RSA escapes being a failed state. The manner in which the conference was run is indicative of how they would run the country. There is clearly plenty of leadership talent in the DA prepared to stick to the long hard road of politics because they are committed to the country and its people more than their party. Dr Phalatse spoke extremely well and conducted herself immaculately in defeat. She will become an important political leader in the future. The commitment to a coalition of opposition parties also leaves the door open to the selection of the best person for President in the event the moon-shot is successful. It is vital that substantial funding becomes available to the DA and other major members of any coalition that is formed such as the IFP – money plays a major role in political success.

  • Robert Douglas says:

    Holding a timeous & orderly party election process shows everybody out there what can be done !

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      Or, it shows how Un-African the DA is, and how alien and unwelcome natural africans would feel in the Westminister-style DA.
      Maybe they should encourage more sing-songs, shouting and swaying, maybe even stage a chair-throwing fight, to tempt wavering congress supporters to join a Blue Bun-Fight.

  • The Proven says:

    We are bound to enter race-based politics – the ANC and EFF will drag the DA into the gutter-trenches, making the next election about the colour of the leader’s skin. It does not matter if the “white party” label on the DA is reality or perception – it has to be dealt with. I hope they can convince all and sundry to look past colour – I for one would be very happy if that happens. I am unfortunately doubtful.

  • Rob Glenister says:

    Orderly and on time – sure. Potentially the governing party, I doubt it, even with a coalition.
    To have any hope of achieving Steenhuisen’s objectives, the DA needs to do two things:
    1. Put Helen Zille out to pasture permanently and stop her running the DA from behind the curtain. She is past her sell-by date and polarises potential supporters. Myself included.
    2. Accept that the DA will never become the top dog without a black leader. It simply won’t happen, and that’s a reality that they have to live with. They have already lost several potential candidates (including Lindiwe Mazibuko) and will continue to do so.
    Tough love, but that’s the way it is. There is a massive role for Steenhuisen and others to play, but not as party leaders.

  • A surprisingly complimentary report by Stephen Grootes who always appears to want to “knock” the DA on radio broadcasts

  • Leon Marshall says:

    The style and mood of the DA congress seems a refreshing change indeed in these crazy times we live in. But I’m afraid voters need to prepare for a blast of racial politics once the election campaign gets properly going. One would love it to not be so, but as swart gevaar once was the go-to for bringing squabbling government supporters back into line, so it is wit gevaar that may this time be put to its most blatant similar use since the change-over. The have, have-not divide makes it so much more potent unfortunately. Yet, as is increasingly noted, it is in the economic circumstance of just about everybody outside the power circle that lies the best counter offensive. As long as the DA and its prospective coalition associates remember that and not get themselves into all kinds of racial knots in the run-up to election day. Their opponents would surely latch onto that for proving their wit gevaar point and for working diversions.

    • Thinker and Doer says:

      Very good point, thank you! I agree that this is the approach that the EFF in particular will take, but an opposition coalition would as you say need to really refuse to get into that terrain, and stick entirely to putting forward a positive campaign that focuses on addressing the serious practical issues and will benefit everyone. That is their only hope for success. If they so much as give any credence to or get sucked into the racial terrain, they will be at a disadvantage, and will definitely not succeed.

  • ‘DA delegates are near-obsessive about this’ The need to remove the ANC. Im not sure why so many journalists present this as a ‘fault’. Of course they are obsessive about removing the ANC, aren’t you? shouldn’t all journalists be supporting this approach? I really don’t understand why I have to keep reading this…
    As for the coalition – Michael Beaumont’s comment about the DA joining something that others have started – is pretty childish. Who cares who started it?? What matters is that there is a strong coalition to wipe the ANC and the EFF out of the contest. As Dr Corne Mulder said in his interview with Alec Hogg, if all the ‘business friendly’ parties, DA, Action SA, VF+ etc, work together to create a coalition of united strength, that will overpower any support that the ANC and EFF manage to garner, then we will have a chance to build our beautiful country up again, to make it a success, an equal, economically stable country. A paradise in actual fact.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    The upside of this is that it shows that South Africans can actually get together without having a riot at a political gathering. It was more like a rugby match. The main battles happens away from the spectators.

  • David Crossley says:

    I agree with Steenhuisen – Malema is a nightmare – he is charismatic, well spoken and able to lead the crowds, but his politics is divisive and has all the characteristics of a dictatorship. I wonder whether the EFF would survive as a party if Malema was not the leader.
    The facts speak for themselves – the DA run the Western Cape efficiently and honestly – things work and the economy is on the up, which is more than can be said for the other Provinces. Skin colour should no longer be the deciding factor, though with our racial background, I wonder if the majority could see a white President in South Africa!

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thanks very much, again, Mr Grootes, for another very thoughtful article. It is refreshing to have an efficiently run and successful congress run by a major political party! I think that in order to succeed, the DA and opposition coalition (it is positive that there are efforts to try and develop a coalition in advance of the elections), need to develop a platform that is not only about “keeping an ANC and the EFF coalition from gaining power”, which while I agree would be horrendous, cannot be the main messaging. They really need to develop a positive platform that clearly indicates how they will address all of the major crises that the country is facing, in a manner that all voters could see would benefit them and everyone. That sort of approach might have a chance of winning over a substantial number of voters. They also it seems need to reach out to young people, and explain what they will do to promote their education and skills development, and job opportunities. They need to reach out to the most rural and disadvantaged areas and show what they will do for them. I hope that they can succeed in this, the country desperately needs a comprehensive, well thought-out, positive approach to move forward. If they just basically run on “stop the ANC and the EFF”, they won’t win over nearly enough voters.

  • Jan Malan says:

    I wish with all my heart that the Moonshot Campaign will succeed but the big question is who will lead it and the bigger question is if this coalition succeeds and wins the election who will be President? Will there be bickering and arguments about it? Will the fight be so great who is the leader that the coalition will fall apart? The egos of the leaders are so great that it could be their downfall.

  • Terence Dowdall says:

    I don’t follow the campaigns closely, but is the DA pushing the point: ‘If you don’t like the way your services are ruined and government money that could make your life better, is stolen, give us the chance for one term to start changing this. If your lives don’t change in the right way, don’t vote for us again’.

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