Defend Truth


Forget John Steenhuisen’s dancing skills, focus on what the DA doesn’t say


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.

That the DA leader has set up defeating the ANC and EFF as a prime target, and not poverty, unemployment, unequal access to healthcare, education, sanitation, lack of community safety, crime etc says a lot more about the liberal party than John Steenhuisen’s lack of dance moves.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) completed its national congress last weekend, and re-elected John Steenhuisen as leader. This was unsurprising. Delegates were never going to elect a black person to head the alliance.

As a just-in-case, the Freedom Front Plus has formed a type of safety netting around the DA in anticipation of a collapse. For now, however, the DA remains a steady and conservative alliance apparently resistant to change.

Depending on where you sit on the conventional political spectrum, resistance to change is either considered necessary for the sake of stability and continuity, or it conceals a resistance to more radical and necessary social change and transformation. Analysts have already started deliberating these issues.

What has been curious, though terribly predictable, has been the responses to the language that was used by Steenhuisen, and the symbolism that was on display at the national congress.

Most curious, a mite duplicitous, has been criticism and offence taken at Steenhuisen’s toyi-toyi, and the cries of “Viva” that echoed in the atmosphere. Set aside the spectacle of Steenhuisen’s dancing (I’m not the greatest dancer, though not nearly as bad as Elaine Benes). The idea that the DA, or a white male who is not associated with the liberation movement, someone like say, Carl Niehaus (no laughing at the back), cannot toyi-toyi or shout “Viva” is rather silly, duplicitous and (as always) ahistorical. Now there is something new…

I apologise for sounding pedantic, but nobody owns the toyi-toyi, and associating the “Viva” cry with South Africa’s broad liberation movement ignores at least two things. First, it is derivative (that means it’s not original, Floyd).

Second, to associate it with the left is just rubbish. It’s certainly true that the cry of “Viva” conjures up images of leftist revolutions and revolutionaries, but fascists have also used the cry. For instance, when Benito Mussolini appeared on Rome’s Piazza Colonna in 1924, at least 100,000 people greeted him with delirious enthusiasm and the cry, “Viva d’ Un a Noi” (Three cheers for one of us). Mussolini replied, “Viva il Re! Viva L’ Italia! Viva il Fascismo!”

So, the responses to the language, symbolism — and that dreadful term, “the optics” — have been tiresome, and terribly puerile. It’s as if the entire country has been sipping on the cloying and sugary syrup of “superior logic”.

It is, of course, consistent and to be expected from a society that generally places style above substance. Install gold-plated plumbing and ignore the unreliable supply of water; drive a car worth millions of rand, while the roads are crumbling; dress down in worker clothing (because you can return to your comfortable lifestyle at the end of the day), while you make out like bandits … nevermind.

Finishing in fourth place is not good enough

The obsession with symbolism and language is not always misplaced. It can be insightful and revelatory. In the case of the most recent DA conference, Steenhuisen has set up defeating the ANC and EFF as its prime target, and not poverty, unemployment, unequal access to healthcare, education, sanitation, lack of community safety, crime. This says a lot more about the liberal party. They are, at least, consistent: the DA and its predecessor have always campaigned for effective opposition … but there is a greater comedic aspect of the DA’s focus on the ANC-EFF.

There’s a tendency in football — I am thinking about the English Premier League — to focus on beating your fiercest rival and finishing above them, or getting into fourth place in the league at the end of the season in order to qualify for the lucrative European Champions League.

The main objective for, say, Tottenham Hotspur is to beat Arsenal, or for Manchester United to beat Liverpool. Neither cares about winning the league — sort of. This is the problem with the DA. They want to beat the ANC and EFF.

It is what happens if you are liberal, and imagine that “the market” will fix things, that beating the ANC-EFF would somehow (mysteriously or through some “invisible hand”) turn South Africa into a progressive, prosperous, stable, cohesive society with high levels of trust among the population, and that electing the DA is an end in itself.

Once again (for those at the back), that is like confusing ambition with achievement. Fourth place is not good enough.

Words, meaning and use

I am by no means suggesting that words don’t carry enormous meaning, and the placement of words in sentences can be a vile and insidious form of gaslighting and manipulation.

Consider Julius Malema’s constant references, in a single passage, to “whites” and “genocide”. The songs “Kill the Boer” or “Mshini Wam” are also embedded in the minds of most South Africans, humming the melodies or cheekily changing single offensive words does not take away the way the songs are used to provoke, ridicule and encourage violence. Forget the melodies, music is not always a creative, pleasant endeavour.

The Giovinezza anthem (the anthem of the interwar Italian fascists) became one of Mussolini’s most important vehicles of fascist pride (and violence); he recast music as an instrument for fear, and not as a creative exercise. I guess all I am saying is that there really should be no easy answers to complicated issues that are multicausal in origin, and that may conceal injustices.

As it goes, if you close your eyes, politicians often sound the same. I provided an example of this previously with the interchangeable use (by the old Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging and the Economic Freedom Fighters) of words like “our people” “the land” and “foreign enemies” — when the top and tail or the context are stripped.

We have, in general, become anaesthetised, and very often accept what politicians, or anyone for that matter, say; we take them at their word, and rarely consider things that are omitted or the way words are paired in sentences and/or context.

Consider the following: We need to defend our people, our land and our future, and not be divided by malicious people who want to destroy us. This seems like a fairly strong political statement. The problem is that that statement may be attributed to any politician who uses identity or nationalism, or emotive (and important) issues like land or poverty as vehicles for their politics and propaganda.

So, we should probably let the DA wander off to wherever it is they’re heading with Steenhuisen as leader. We ought to know better than to focus on Steenhuisen’s lack of dancing skills, and reach easy conclusions that obscure or simply avoid more difficult and important issues for the sake of cheap thrills.

The toyi-toyi and cries of “Viva” are not the exclusive property of only the broad liberation movement, such as it is. To imagine that it is silly, and a case, surely, of having run out of ideas.

There are more important things at stake. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Eish. This is lost on me. Taking digs here, there, and ultimately nowhere.
    Btw, this was a conference- defining new organisational processes, election of office bearers- you’ll find the DA policies on their webpage. Double click.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Eish. This is lost on me. Taking digs here, there, and ultimately nowhere.
    Btw, this was a conference- defining new organisational processes, election of office bearers- you’ll find the DA policies on their webpage. Double click.

  • William Stucke says:

    This article reminds me of the tale of the parson’s egg – good in parts.

    You accuse the DA of ignoring “poverty, unemployment, unequal access to healthcare, education, sanitation, lack of community safety, crime, etc.” in favour of focussing on defeating the ANC and their little brothers, the EFF. What you fail to recognise is the root cause of our problems as a country. Let’s look at a few of these.

    “Poverty, inequality and unemployment” are usually lumped together. Actually, they are all symptoms of a single problem – our staggeringly high levels of unemployment. The average monthly salary in RSA is between R24k and R31k. Nobody earning those amounts is “poor”. The poor are the unemployed. Why do we have such high unemployment? Decades of mismanagement of our economy and of legislation by the ANC government. Needless to say, such poverty contributes directly to crime. Desperate people will take desperate measures to feed their families.

    Why do we have “unequal access to unequal access to healthcare, education, sanitation, etc.”? Once again, because the ANC have drunk the 1960s Kool-Aid about the “levers of power” and imposed their unqualified and dishonest cadres everywhere they can in all >700 SOEs.

    So, yes, getting rid of the ANC and the EFF in positions of power is the obvious first step in righting the many wrongs in our society. How exactly do you propose that the DA will solve these issues if the ANC remains in power?

    BTW, Why do you use “Liberal” as a negative?

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    This is a really dumb article. Sorry to say so DM, but it is dumb, really dumb. Get rid of the ANC/EFF and the rest will follow.

  • Dietmar Horn says:

    What a strangely skewed argument!
    If the prime target in this country is to defeat “poverty, unemployment, unequal access to healthcare, education, sanitation, lack of community safety, crime”, then doesn’t that mean that those who have consistently failed in this task for 30 years must be defeated first? How does all this ramblings help solve the real problems?

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    I usually enjoy your articles but this one is a bit silly. The first requirement for a political party to be effective is to be in power and to be in power you have to beat your opponents. Talking about what you intend to do without the means to do it is actually what should be ridiculed.

  • Wayne Holt says:

    I read the first paragraph and scrolled down to the comments… enough said… DM as a subscriber please find better content and content providers

  • Derek Duckitt says:

    Reading between the lines of this article, it seems to be written by an ANC supporter who is desperately worried about the DA’s potential to kick out the ANC, and thus tries to ridicule that. I’m afraid all reasonable South Africans see right through you, Ismail Lagardien.

    • Derek Jones says:

      That sounds like solid sense to me. Seeing past bullshit is a national treasure, well done Mr Duckitt.

    • Anton B says:

      I can’t pretend to know (as Derek does) what Ismael’s “hidden motivation” is. For me… I would love to find some really good reason to vote for the DA other than merely their intention to kick out the ANC. I would indeed like the ANC kicked out but the DA is almost 100% certainly not going to achieve that given the way it has been perpetrating politics over the last few years. And becoming purely defensive about criticism without showing that you are willing to hear the feedback and to do some introspection (as mentioned by Benjamin Cockram below) is shortsighted and sure to make the above mentioned “kicking out job” even more unlikely. The DA’s rhetoric clearly speaks to some people but will not grow materially as long as it gets stuck with the current messaging.
      Choosing a party to vote for is probably always a choice between “bad” and “worse”. I keep hoping that the DA will work its way up to the “bad” spot and thus be the preferred choice – but they sadly manage to progressively work their way in the “worse” direction & at best an extreme grudge purchase. Maybe the coming election will have to be the painful choice between “worse” and even “worserer”…

  • Zane Erasmus Erasmus says:

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you want to criticize the DA, then criticize their track record in areas where they have governed.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The DA should be wooing the voters that aren’t voting, not trying to convert the believers. But how does a leader like Steenhuisen do that, with such a limited arsenal at his disposal, not to mention a lack of a language that will reach this audience? We have a history to overcome, and there is just no way a leader like the incumbent is the man to do that. The following election is too far away, and by the time we get there, nothing of this country will be left. We have only this window, and we are going to be caught outside, looking in. The DA cannot do revolution, but it must make it clear to a twice burnt population that it can provide them with a future, without slipping back into the past.

    • Roger Saner says:

      Other parties and independent candidates can step into this gap to help register voters who will never vote the DA. I hope that ordinary citizens will help with voter registration too – the IEC has a helpful site for this.

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    The DA is on the rise and a lot of journalists and columnists are having chest pains 😀

    • Dricky van As says:

      I agree with you 100% William. They are working hard. I support their manifesto too. It is achievable. The MPC was also their idea. Sadly we cannot help stupid. They will feel the pain by their choice.

  • Benjamin Cockram says:

    Hang on, what Ismail says here should provoke some introspection from DA supporters. My biggest criticism of the DA for the past years has been the very poor way it communicates its ideological position to all voters. I firmly believe that right now economic policies based on liberalism coupled with getting the judicial institutions back to ensure accountability would directly dramatically and in a short space of time turn South Africa around. This is what the DA would do if they got the mandate. It is also a quite easy sell to people who are sick governmental ineptitude. Furthermore if well positioned it would unite people from all ideological perspectives behind a common goal to get things back in track. The DA under current leadership never frames this message, instead we have to deal with the types of sound bites that Ismael is critiquing.

    • John Cartwright says:

      Agreed – a usefully nuanced article.

    • Anton B says:

      Agreed. Important to constructively deal with the criticism underlying this article rather than the kneejerk defensiveness I see in most responses.

    • Ingrid Kemp says:

      Agreed. John Steenhuisen must also speak to the likes of Songezo Zibi et al for fresh ideas and guidance on how we communicate with the millions of poor & disadvantaged South Africans. They are the Electorate.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Methinks you just like baiting the DA. And oh, how they’ve responded. I agree they need to do more than beat the ANC. But your argument should better tell us what the DA can or should do better than the ANC that they aren’t already doing where they govern with chapter and verse, and then there might be something worth engaging on. As it stands, you rile DA supporters and if that’s your aim: well done!

  • chulleyrsa says:

    Your bitterness is consuming you. Seek some professional help. Offer a solution.

  • Brian Algar says:

    If the ANC or an ANC/EFF coalition get to misrule this country for another 5 years, I fear the country will be too far gone to save. The first step is to prevent this happening. Only once this has been achieved, do policy details become more relevant. And quite frankly I think a class of honest matric students could do a better job than the thieving hyena’s that are currently destroying this wonderful country. Don’t quite get the gist of what point this article is trying to make, other than to bash the DA.

  • Jonathan Taylor says:

    Rather disingenuous to say the DA should be focusing on fixing crime, poverty, and unemployment as opposed to targeting the removal of the ANC. The ANC has dragged the SA economy down to become one of the worst-performing countries in Africa, so unless the corrupt and incompetent politicians and poor policies of the ANC are targeted for removal, we will continue on the downward spiral to failed state status. How can the DA improve the socio-economic conditions of the country if their contributions are just ignored by the self-enriching hegemonic elite of the ANC? The efficiency and good governance of DA administrations make it quite obvious that they have a better solution to lifting the masses out of poverty than the ANC, whether their leaders can dance or not.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    It is sad to read comments by those who appear to be close to the DA. That your leader is politically naive he demonstrated when comparing SA with the US (Barack Obama) and the UK (Rishi Sunak). Both countries have voters who have been exposed to democracy for many, many years and are politically a lot more mature. Voting along racial lines will be with us for another couple of generations, something that Steenhuisen (and Zille) either don’t understand or are unwilling to admit. Neither of them will be able to attract enough non-white voters to prevent an ANC/EFF coalition. If the DA stays on its present trajectory, they will become irrelevant after 2024.

  • Steve Stevens says:

    Not your best Ismail, but I will grant you the point about unemployment, poverty etc. It’s all well and good making sweeping generalisations about defeating the ANC, but surely the only way to do that is to articulate to the voters in very simple terms the DA’s plans to address the issues and (very) quickly come up with a convincing narrative that can beat the ANC’s tried and tested ace up the sleeve ie. ‘as the party of liberation we have the god-given right to plunder with impunity’.

    By the way – the dancing, appropriated or not, was just cringeworthy.

  • Roger Saner says:

    I am not a DA supporter but this article is unfair to the DA. It conveniently ignores the underlying reasons as to the DA’s strategy in order to make the author’s predictable point.

    Steenhuizen is correct when he said this last weekend that if the ANC slips below 50% it will form a coalition with the EFF. This is terrifying. The ANC and EFF should be defeated so badly that even with a coalition they make up less than 50%.

    While I won’t be voting for the DA I support their call for unity amongst the opposition. Imagine if South African civil society could rally together for this “moonshot”? It would give me hope that we could lead the world in the spirit of the original moonshot, combining all aspects of society to address climate change. The IPCC report gives us 7 years – and we cannot afford to spend the majority of that time trying to unseat the ANC and EFF. There are higher callings – but first, they must be unseated.

  • William Dryden says:

    I agree with Steenhuisen, the first priority is to get rid of the ANC and EFF, then start to re build The economy, to knock his thoughts I think, is petty but free speech is what democracy is all about.

  • Kenneth Meek says:

    The DA would be far better at running the country, but that won’t be enough. It needs an outside-the-box economic vision. A normal free market approach will help but it may be too late and work too slowly.
    I am a supporter but at times the DA reminds me of the old United Party. They ran Natal in their day, which was better managed than the Nat -run provinces, but they were stuck in the paradigm of racial segregation and they were eventually overtaken by the times and lost their significance.
    The DA has been stuck in the paradigm of one-size-fits-all free market economics without examining whether in itself it will solve the issues of unemployment and poverty.
    If the DA can’t find an economic policy that can promise to draw in the huge numbers of unemployed into some form of economic activity or advantage very quickly, the only other party to offer a sellable alternative will be the EFF.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted