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You can run from Ntuli’s challenge, Steenhuisen, but you can’t hide


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Mbali Ntuli’s challenge to John Steenhuisen for leadership of the Democratic Alliance is a watershed moment for the party that has been the main opposition almost since the establishment of the Republic of South Africa almost 60 years ago.

Across that period, and under various incarnations and leaders, the DA has represented mainly the English-speaking minority in the country – where the National Party were unquestionably the villains in the piece – but included notable “enlightened Afrikaners” like Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Tiaan van der Merwe. 

Since 1994, the party has also shed some characters that cause a rise in bile, like Tony Leon, and some who are infinitely more respectable, like Peter Gastrow or Lindiwe Mazibuko, and more recently, the rather ineffectual and milquetoast Mmusi Maimane. Helen Zille remains somewhere in the orbit of the DA, but is more of an itch that will not go away. It’s a good thing for Zille that she remains the centre of her own attention; it should, at least, keep her out of formal politics.

It’s rather amusing when one considers that former NP figures like Leon Wessels and Roelf Meyer have emerged as more respectable figures, and have done more for the country in the past 25 years than Zille or Leon. But this is the nature of change. It’s impossible to tell what will happen next.

Jimmy Manyi can switch from being a mouthpiece for the ANC to challenging his former masters in an election. Julius Malema can go from bleeding green, black and gold, to bleeding red. Jacobus Hercules van der Merwe, a former Conservative Party grootkop, joined the Inkatha Freedom Party. This is the dynamism of politics, with the heavy caveat that name-calling, insults, scapegoating, threats of violence and blood-curdling exhortations have been elevated to “superior logic”.

DA liberalism and all that jazz

If we take her at her word, the DA that Ntuli represents is not your bog-standard liberal party. In its most elementary conception, the liberalism that the DA has come to represent is obsessively obeisant to atomised individualism, free-market fundamentalism driven by a convenient meritocracy that is a neat fig leaf for social Darwinism, and the protection of vertically segmented white privilege. Race, barely a generation after apartheid, is one of the DA’s blind spots.

The DA that Ntuli envisions is a party that acknowledges the legatees of apartheid (black people), the iniquities of that system (unbalanced development, structural inequality that endures, and poverty that is, by and large, the inheritance of 350 years of injustice), and the need to (finally) break with a type of market-led gradualism, in terms of which poverty and inequality will disappear when they disappear, let’s just move on… This approach sits more comfortably with the eight-second performativity of the purple cows. 

This brings us to what may happen should Ntuli beat Steenhuisen. The we-don’t-see-race, and Last Outpost types, will probably abandon the DA. Some may go to the left and some to the right. There is not much to the left that would accommodate those that are uncomfortable with a strong black woman at the head of the party.

To the extent that the Freedom Front Plus is to the right of the DA, they at least don’t pretend to speak for the entire country. The FF+ are unashamedly concerned about “their people,” without pandering to AfriForum, and ethno-nationalism. Then again, you never know what concealed sentiments there are among DA members. The ANC is immediately to the left of the DA and, well, it’s hard to imagine anyone willingly joining a party that has Carl Neihaus, Ace Magashule, Andile Lungisa, Zandile Gumede, Jacob Zuma, Bathabile Dhlamini, and any number of dodgy people in its ranks.

The choice between the blue pill and the red pill

In a video released last week, Ntuli said the DA was “at a crossroads”. This is a bolder step than any DA leader has taken. At the level of perception, the DA seems like a white party with most of its white members apparently committed to keeping the party that way. At this crossroad the DA has to decide it wants to remain the “natural home” of white people, with light touches of black liberals, and carry on ignoring the enduring legacy of apartheid, or if it should take the red pill, and free itself from being associated with white privilege and provide a viable alternative to the ANC.


Steenhuisen represents more of the same; either wilful ignorance or an undying belief that an invisible hand will necessarily correct the enduring legacy of the past. The DA needs to let voters know that there is more to them than opposition to the ANC. It must, as Ntuli said, “communicate clearly on where we stand with respect to issues like employment, housing and redress, the vast majority of South Africans will not listen to us…” She said the DA needed to decide whether to continue with the current trajectory (the blue pill), where it represents the “voices of the few”, or whether it wanted to cultivate a new way – with her at the helm. Then she presented the DA with the red pill.

“It is unfortunate,” she said, “that 26 years into our democracy, poverty in South Africa still has a colour. As the DA, we need to have these conversations because the state has failed to meaningfully address the legacy of apartheid.”

When Ntuli challenged Steenhuisen to a public debate last week, he refused, reportedly because he did not want to be drawn into a discussion on race. Well, Steenhuisen can run from that discussion, but he can’t hide. The best of us have imagined a post-race, or a non-racial society and polity, and have been disappointed. Nonetheless, setting aside identity politics, the enduring legacy of apartheid is hard to avoid.

The cold realities of South African politics

As refreshing, insightful, courageous and progressive Ntuli may be, it is highly doubtful that she will get enough support from within the DA to elevate her to the leadership. She seems, in many respects, a better candidate (than Steenhuisen) to lead the opposition, because (as stated) she seems to address the concerns most South Africans have about poverty, inequality and injustice – and especially the ways in which black people continue to bear the burden.

She faces two major hurdles, however. The first is internal and the other external and in the medium to long term. Internally, it’s really difficult to see the grizzled chaps and toffs supporting her candidacy for leader of the DA. It is even more difficult to see them taking advice from a young person, who has little experience of national politics.

In the medium to long term, the DA’s biggest problem is that the ANC may not accept defeat in a general election. The ANC has made it clear that it is South Africa, and South Africa is the ANC. If we take this to its logical conclusion, the ANC (and the EFF, for that matter), will not “allow” a democratically elected liberal party (the DA) to govern the country. The ANC has a history of making the country ungovernable (during the 1980s), and the EFF has a history of obstructionism. There is every possibility that once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed, a new political alignment may emerge under a Radical Economic Transformation banner.

And so, on the plus side, Ntuli would galvanise support among black voters revolted by ANC corruption and maladministration, and who may genuinely believe in the type of liberalism that she represents. On the downside, she has a major task ahead, trying to convince the chaps and the toffs to elect her as leader of the DA. Should she get past that hurdle and lead the DA to victory in the next election, the ANC and EFF will make it impossible for the DA to govern.

Ntuli’s biggest flaw is that she is still relatively naïve. There is a “machinery” behind Steenhuisen and the DA that Ntuli does not seem to understand. It runs from the Union of South Africa under Jan Smuts, through the post-war period of Helen Suzman, to Helen Zille, Tony Leon and now, John Steenhuisen. Maimane was the exception that proved the rule. He turned out to be a bump in the road of the chaps and toffs who are holding on to the Last Outpost. That’s a deep pedigree. It would be nothing short of a miracle to overthrow what remains of the English (liberal) opposition to Afrikaner nationalism, which as it goes, has been well and truly defeated, and replaced by an African nationalism. DM