Virtual conference will not be free, fair and credible - why Mbali Ntuli wants DA congress postponed

Mbali Ntuli.
Mbali Ntuli.
Herman Verwey, City Press

DA leadership hopeful Mbali Ntuli has written to the party's public representatives, objecting to proposed plans for a virtual leadership conference in October.

She has also called on those not in favour of the decision taken by the party's federal executive to make their voices heard.

News24 has seen the letter, in which the former DA youth leader and member of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature raised a series of "serious concerns" over the state of the party and the processes leading up to the federal conference. She also questioned why the DA was refusing to wait until after the 2021 local government elections.

"It is my considered view that the environment in which the party currently finds itself does not allow for a credible, free and fair process and outcome. This will ultimately bring into question the integrity of the Federal Congress itself," wrote Ntuli in the letter.

"I therefore cannot, in good conscience, remain silent when there is a move to hold a congress whose outcomes will not be FAIR to the majority of the members of our party," she continued.

Ntuli said with the country currently in lockdown, with movement restricted and campaigning prohibited, candidates vying for the party's leadership positions would go into a virtual conference without hearing from and engaging with party members.

Ntuli wrote to the party's representatives in February to announce her candidacy.

She is one of three leaders vying for the top post, the others being interim leader John Steenhuisen and Gauteng leader John Moodey.

While all three suspended their campaigns with the country in lockdown, some in the party have accused Steenhuisen of using his role as interim leader, and the de facto face of the DA during the Covid-19 crisis, to campaign for the post.

Ntuli had said she was taking a stand because she did not want to see the party fading into "oblivion".

READ MORE | Mbali Ntuli eyes DA top job: If we don't save the DA, we cannot save South Africa

"I believe there may be a time in the future when we will be able to use online platforms for some parts of a Federal Congress, however, now is not the time," she said in her letter.

Secrecy not guaranteed

"I, too, am deeply concerned that there may be an attempt to proceed with a virtual congress in spite of the many reasonable arguments levelled for why robust debate and a FAIR outcome are not possible under these circumstances."

Ntuli also raised security concerns, saying there was no guarantee that approved delegates would be the ones casting the votes and participating in the virtual conference.

"Nobody can guarantee that a delegate cannot give his or her access codes or log in passwords to someone else to vote or partake on his or her behalf, especially when intimidation and an environment of fear are prevalent in our party," said Ntuli, reflecting on a review panel report, commissioned in 2019, into the state of the organisation.

The review panel report, conducted by former party leaders, was a central factor in Mmusi Maimane's downfall as party leader.

His resignation, following the DA's dismal showing at the national polls, led to other key leaders leaving the party, throwing it into disarray.

ALSO READ | Mmusi Maimane resigns from DA

Ntuli said as a candidate she was worried about whether or not the DA would be able to uphold internal democratic practices for a virtual conference.

"A concern to any candidate running will be the inability to access the ballots once they have been cast. This is usually the case when a normal election is held. The results are likely to be determined behind closed doors and everyone will have to accept the outcome."

She said there would be a likelihood that some candidate would have inside information on how the system would work and be used, while others would be left out, which would only raise suspicions about the process and further dent the DA.

"There is no guarantee that every delegate's vote will be secret. This will compromise a free and fair election, especially noting the review report which indicates the party operates in an environment of fear."

She also said the DA's own voting system was complex and often resulted in spoilt ballots in spite of the party trying to ensure delegates understood the method. She also questioned how this would function with the added complexities of having to do so via virtual platforms.

Connectivity struggles

She warned it would be a mistake to forge ahead with the conference, also raising concerns for those who would be disadvantaged if it was held.

Ntuli said many areas, including most rural and some urban communities, still struggled with internet connectivity, emphasising that she did not believe the conference could guarantee full connectivity for all participants throughout the conference, which would only result in many delegates being left out of the processes.

Ntuli said this would also interfere with the party's annual general meetings, which are tasked with electing delegates for congress and debating resolutions and constitutional amendments.

"Data in South Africa remains incredibly expensive and it is unlikely that all delegates will have enough data to participate in a two-day long congress without interruption due to connectivity and any other distractions that may arise from a delegate's location."

She said proceeding with the virtual conference only served to open the party to more scrutiny regarding its legitimacy and legal challenges.

"It is not ideal for our party to be stuck in internal congress challenges, especially when we have a local government election on our doorstep in a matter of months."

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