DA leadership contest: 'Race does matter', says John Steenhuisen

DA parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen at the Cape Town Press Club, where he announced that he'll be running to become the party's leader. (Jan Gerber, News24)
DA parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen at the Cape Town Press Club, where he announced that he'll be running to become the party's leader. (Jan Gerber, News24)

"It is very important to notice this bizarre notion that I said race doesn't matter," DA parliamentary leader and candidate for the party's interim leadership John Steenhuisen said, a hint of annoyed incredulity former speaker Baleka Mbete would be familiar with, creeping into his voice.

"It does matter!"

Steenhuisen was speaking to News24 on Friday afternoon. Within 48 hours, he would know whether he was successful in his quest to become the DA's interim leader after the dramatic departure of former leader Mmusi Maimane.

He said he thinks his campaign went "very, very well" and he got "positive feedback from a large majority" of the Federal Council, who will vote for the interim leader and interim chairperson on Sunday.

"But I don't take anything for granted," he adds, quickly. Therefore, the lobbying will continue until Sunday.

Steenhuisen is up against Makashule Gana, Gauteng MPL and chairperson of the DA's MPL network – the body of 24 MPLs from all provinces delegated to the federal council.

READ MORE | Steenhuisen, Gana face final days of lobbying for DA interim leader job

And the stakes are high. Steenhuisen believes the interim leadership is "definitely a precursor" to the federal leadership, which will be decided in April.

"I think it is going to be difficult to dislodge the interim leader," he said and pointed out that Tony Leon was also first interim leader before he became the party's leader.

Steenhuisen is confident that "decisive leadership" by the interim leader will translate to backing by delegates at the DA's federal congress come April 2020.

The DA will also be heading into a policy conference, and according to Steenhuisen, this will be a ground-up process, starting from the branches working its way up through the structures.

"But certainly, if there is an overwhelming win [in Sunday's interim leadership election], it will be an indication where the party will go.

"That is why have been very unambiguous on where I stand. I don't want anyone to be under any illusions on what I believe," he said.

He said this might have been a problem with the party leadership in the past.

"The leader doesn't determine where everything goes, but the party needs to know where the leader stands," he explained.

When Steenhuisen announced his candidature for the interim leadership, and ultimately the party leadership, at the Cape Town Press Club on October 28, he set out where he stood.

Steenhuisen described his party in the run-up to the May 2019 election as a "big blue, wobbly jelly".

"With nothing holding us upright, we wobbled to the left and wobbled to the right, buffeted by the political winds and latest populist cause du jour. Now, I know that many people may like jelly, but nobody orders it for dessert when they go out for dinner," he told the Cape Town Press Club.

He said the task for the DA is clear: "We need to find our spine again."

This, according to Steenhuisen, entailed re-anchoring themselves to their core values, "confidently evangelise" non-racialism, while maintaining a commitment to redress and reconciliation" and setting out with "spellbinding clarity" what the DA is about.

Asked if his description of the party as a "big, blue wobbly jelly" rankled fellow party members, he said quite the contrary, there was "overwhelming agreement".

"I think they appreciate the honesty."

He also made reference to the report on the review of the party after the 2019 national elections by Ryan Coetzee, Leon and Michiel le Roux, which was – "brutal as it was" – accepted by the party.

One of the aspects highlighted in the report is the party's ambivalence and division in dealing with race.

The panel found that besides a "general incoherence", there was an "insensitivity" by some public representatives about some South Africans' past and unease on how the party reacts to public racial incidents.

"It puts forward an argument which, at its centre, revolves around the DA's commitment to non-racialism, its rejection of racial nationalism, a belief that race should not be a proxy for disadvantage and that DA members are individuals in their own right, and not representatives 'or facsimiles' of groups," News24's Pieter du Toit wrote in an analysis of the report.

Race reared its head in the campaigning for the interim leadership as well, when Steenhuisen's opponent, Gana, wrote a letter to delegates, in which he urged them to take a more progressive stance on South Africa's "historical albatross" of race, and challenged the party to be less "hypocritical" in attracting black voters.

Makashule Gana (Genevieve Quintal, News24)

"The first question we have to ask is whether the DA can continue to propound a brand of politics that strains to emphasise that race does not matter, and yet recognises that in order to win elections, it has to have black leadership? I do not think this is sustainable because it is fundamentally hypocritical for more than one reason, which I set out below."

READ MORE | DA can't ignore race - interim leader candidate Gana in letter to federal council

Gana called for a more compassionate DA, which should be alive to the racial, gender, sexual inequalities that existed in the country.

In Gana's view, fundamental issues have been ignored for too long. He argued if these had been dealt with, then comments made by current federal council chairperson and former leader Helen Zille about colonialism - which he says hurt black people - as well as the removal of former Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille, would not have hurt the party as much as it did.

He warned against picking black leaders who were expected to "tip-toe around historical albatrosses".

Asked about Gana seemingly placing race more centrally in his vision than himself, Steenhuisen said he never once said race doesn't matter (what he did say, to Radio 702, is that race shouldn't matter in determining the DA's leader).

"Of course it matters," he said.

However, he said the ANC's "race-based policies layered on top of apartheid's race-based policies" failed. He said if redress polices reached the people who need it, 99% of them would be black. He said redress policies need to target the people who need it, rather than a racial group.

He pointed to the review panel's criticism of the party's handling of race, which was adopted by the federal council.

"I can't see how we can argue outside of that."

He said he told the caucus he now leads on Thursday: "We have to be the party who owns redress."

But that does not mean they should play this game within the ANC's rules of redress.

He said the ANC's BEE policy had failed, and they as the DA need to come up with their own model of redress, much like the party has done with National Health Insurance. While it supports universal healthcare, they came up with an alternative to that of the ANC.

Whether Steenhuisen or Gana becomes the DA's interim leader, will be decided at a meeting that starts at 11:00 on Sunday in the DA's headquarters in Bruma, Johannesburg. It is expected that the results will be announced at 14:00.

The position of interim chairperson is also contested in the wake of Athol Trollip's resignation.

The candidates are Dharmesh Dhaya, DA chief whip in the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality; Ivan Meyer, deputy federal chairperson and Western Cape MEC for Agriculture; Khume Ramulifho, MPL in the Gauteng legislature; and Nomafrench Mbombo, DA Women's Network leader and Western Cape health MEC.

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