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