Steenhuisen's dream DA - an 'iron fortress' with a spine ... and keeping Zille in her lane

John Steenhuisen addressing the Cape Town Press Club, where he announced his candidature to become the DA's leader. (Jan Gerber, News24)
John Steenhuisen addressing the Cape Town Press Club, where he announced his candidature to become the DA's leader. (Jan Gerber, News24)

Candidate for the leadership of the DA, John Steenhuisen, wants to build the party into an "iron fortress" at the centre of South African politics.

Speaking at the Cape Town Press Club on Monday, Steenhuisen announced that he will be competing to become the interim leader in the November 17 federal council meeting, and federal leader at the April 2020 federal congress.  

He admitted that the previous week had been "tumultuous" and had "dealt a significant blow to [their] cause", but insisted that, with apology to American writer Mark Twain, "reports of the DA's death are greatly exaggerated".

"Hear, hear!" his audience responded.

Last Sunday, former leader Helen Zille (who in 2007 also announced her candidature for the DA's top job at an event of the press club) was elected to the position of chairperson of the DA's federal council. The following day, Herman Mashaba announced that he was resigning as mayor of Johannesburg. On Wednesday, Mmusi Maimane announced that he was quitting as DA federal leader, with Athol Trollip following suit and resigning as federal chairperson.

This effectively rendered the party leaderless.

Furthermore, on Thursday, Steenhuisen was no longer chief whip of the opposition, as his term is dependent on the parliamentary leader. Maimane was no longer parliamentary leader, as he wasn't elected by the caucus and only the party's federal leader can automatically claim to be the leader of the caucus to which he or she belongs.

The party announced on Sunday that Steenhuisen had been elected parliamentary leader, as he was the only person nominated for the position when nominations closed on Friday evening.

Steenhuisen takes heart from the fact that the party has survived situations like this before, albeit still being disappointed by their poor performance in the May 2019 elections.

He scoffs at the notion of "a winning loss".

"A loss is a loss," he said.

"Equally, we must stop beating up on our own supporters who have expressed concern at what they see as a slide into populism.

DA a 'big, wobbly jelly'

"If you look at the parties that grew in the last election, they were characterised by being absolutely clear about who they were, what they were about, and what they were fighting for."

In contrast, he described the DA 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."

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

"We need to re-anchor ourselves to our core values. We must confidently evangelise non-racialism, while maintaining our commitment to redress and reconciliation. We must reconnect with those voters who feel abandoned by us, while winning the votes of South Africans who have never voted for us before.

"The DA needs to become an iron fortress that stands firm at the centre – as the bastion of hope and change, offering rational, evidence-based solutions to South Africa’s problems," Steenhuisen said.

"We need to set out, with spellbinding clarity, what the DA is and what we are about. Because make no mistake, the centre is where the very best ideas for the next generation of progress and change for our country will come from."

He wants the DA to have a compelling policy offer.

"We have to demonstrate that voting for the DA will lead to a better life for everyone. We must build, grow and show a party that truly represents the dreams, hopes and aspirations of every South African, we must reflect and understand their current realities and we must offer hope for a DA tomorrow. We need to do this by becoming an alternative to the ANC, and not an alternative ANC, setting clear blue water between them and our DA."

Steenhuisen also made it clear that eschewing liberalism, wasn't hearkening back to the past.

'We've had a few scraps'

He said liberalism, by definition, required that poverty and unemployment should be rooted out.

"How can anyone be free unless they have the wherewithal to live a life they value? This is the DA’s purpose: to promote substantive freedom by ensuring every person has the right, space and wherewithal to live a life they value. Thus, our liberal values compel us to transcend South Africa’s history of discrimination, division and inequality that is the legacy of racial oppression in our country.

"Let me be clear. No individual in the DA can claim to be a liberal if they do not support the fight against poverty," he stated, emphatically.

Asked if Zille would be the power behind the throne, Steenhuisen said he and Zille went back a long way and had "had a few scraps", and there had been times when she didn’t want to speak to him. He said her controversial tweets were one of the topics on which they differed.

He said she was elected in a four-way contest, and didn’t elect herself.

"If we're democrats, true democrats, we must respect democratic processes."

He said he looked "forward to pointing out the yellow lines from time to time", in reference to Zille's promise that she would stay "in her lane" as chairperson of the federal council.  

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