Steenhuisen set to be interim leader as DA’s warring factions continue bruising battle

John Steenhuisen Picture: Nasief Manie.
John Steenhuisen Picture: Nasief Manie.

While the DA’s ‘true liberals’ are set to win today’s leadership tussle, the ‘progressives’ are gearing up for their fightback come congress

The DA is set for a gruelling few months in the run-up to next year’s elective congress, where its two warring factions will go head to head to decide on its future direction.

The second round of the battle is likely to go to the so-called true liberals, with the election today of former chief whip John Steenhuisen as interim leader of the party.

The group is still buoyant, having emerged victorious at last month’s watershed federal council sitting, which elected former party leader Helen Zille to the powerful position of federal council chairperson.

The group is also allegedly making moves to install two of its preferred candidates in the engine room positions of chief executive officer (CEO) and head of policy, with MP Geordin Hill-Lewis set to take the CEO post.

Hill-Lewis is a staunch Zille ally.

Former head of policy Gwen Ngwenya, who resigned after clashing with recently ousted leader Mmusi Maimane, is likely to return to her position.

City Press has also learnt that Ngwenya will replace Maimane in Parliament.

About 155 delegates will gather today to vote for an interim federal chairperson – following the resignation of Athol Trollip – and an interim leader, which will see Steenhuisen face off against Gauteng MPL Makashule Gana.

The candidates for federal chairperson are Ivan Meyer, Khume Ramulifho and Nomafrench Mbombo.

Today’s election is widely regarded by party members as a bigger battle for the direction the DA will take as it will bring to the fore the issue of how to deal with race, which has remained an albatross around the DA’s neck.

Those belonging to the so-called progressive faction told City Press that they were under no illusions about Gana’s chances of victory, but it was still important for him to stand, out of principle.

They stated their intention of fielding their “real candidate” at the party’s federal congress, taking place in May next year.

“This is really more of a protest campaign,” an MP, who is a member of that faction, told City Press.

Another MP said: “To even say that there is a race leading up to Sunday would not be practical. We all know who will win [Steenhuisen], so this is more like a formality.”

The progressives plan to mount a strong public campaign in the months leading up to the policy conference, scheduled for April next year.

It is understood that the candidate who will contest at congress will be revealed in March.

Among those who have been approached are KwaZulu-Natal provincial leader Zwakele Mncwango, MPL Mbali Ntuli and Midvaal mayor Bongani Baloyi.

Makashule Gana
Makashule Gana. Picture: Deon Raath

Gana drew a line in the sand this week in a letter he penned to delegates.

The former youth leader made it clear that the issue of race and the need to attract black voters remained the greatest dividers in the party.

“Firstly, to many black people, ‘blackness’ is irrevocably linked to their material conditions, which are more dire compared with their white compatriots,” he wrote.

“It absolutely does not hurt to acknowledge this predicament. It is a just, humane and honest thing to do.

The most sustainable path for the DA is not picking black leaders who are expected to tiptoe around our historical albatrosses.
Makashule Gana

“When the argument in the party appears to be fundamentally about steadfastly refusing to acknowledge this reality, it also communicates that the black people in its ranks are there essentially as political packaging to win votes, rather than to change the material conditions of the same black people from whose ranks these leaders are drawn.

“I am therefore saying that the most sustainable path for the DA is not picking black leaders who are expected to tiptoe around our historical albatrosses, but [taking] a position that is genuinely compassionate to the ongoing racialised, gender and sexual orientation inequities in our society.”

In an interview with City Press this week, Steenhuisen said DA members could look forward to a decisive leader in him.

“What people can expect from me is that I will say the same thing to different audiences, and I will ensure that the decisions that are made are decisive and that we stick to them.”

The parliamentary leader candidate was set to run for the position of federal council chairperson, but opted out at the last minute.

“What I did was take the job description, and I saw 18 key things there. I put them on the table and looked at everything, and found that the majority of those were things that did not play to my strengths. I am a frontline politician: I like to be leading, talking in Parliament.

“A lot of that job is heavily administrative, it has to do with a lot of heavy reading and research – not my areas of strength,” he said of the move which, in part, paved the way for Zille’s return.

While Steenhuisen was adamant that race need not be used as a proxy in the party’s redress policy, he did not strongly acknowledge that the party needed to win mainly young black supporters or that the country needed to find a way to advance the poor, most of whom are black.

“What is the legal definition of race without a pencil test? We want to deal with the fact that rural black children do not have the equality of opportunity that urban white children do. So, are we going to build a state-of-the-art school in a rural area and say it is for blacks only? The majority of that school will be black.

“Poverty and deprivation do not need a proxy when it can be measured. Stats SA shows that only 30 000 white people fall into that definition of poverty, so why do we need to resort to racial qualifications?”

While Steenhuisen will emerge victorious today, sources in both camps expect a fallout between him and Zille.

“I can guarantee that they will not see eye to eye, but I cannot say what that will mean for the campaign,” said a close ally of Steenhuisen.

“What I do know is that John wants to be the leader and his mind will not change on that.”

Meanwhile, a fallout from the progressives’ side will take the wind out of Steenhuisen’s sails.

And, should he stumble, the liberals are likely to throw their weight behind Ngwenya.

DA Gauteng chairperson Mike Moriarty confirmed to City Press that Ngwenya would be taking up her seat in Parliament soon.

“It should happen within the next week. There is just one outstanding matter, but it is more of a formality than anything else.”

Moriarty said Ngwenya had topped both the Gauteng provincial list and the national list, and that the vacancy she would be filling was on the national one, following Maimane’s departure.

The bid to place Hill-Lewis in the CEO position could be hampered by the fact that this is a decision of the federal executive, made up mainly of former Maimane allies.

“It is a major risk because we know that those provincial leaders do not care for him much, but he must go there anyway and put himself in the line of fire,” said a source.

  • Additional reporting by Juniour Khumalo

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