Like most career politicians, the office of interim Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen is filled with memorabilia.
These include photos with world leaders, such as former United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron and trinkets from United States presidential elections (but mostly those of Democratic Party candidates). A portrait of former US president John F Kennedy stands out.
Steenhuisen says he regards JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you” speech as a rallying call, and his motivation to run for the top post in the DA.
“The thing with Kennedy is that what he did was not pander to the prejudices of the electorate.
“He didn’t make promises. He set out challenges,” Steenhuisen adds. “And in South Africa, people need to know we have a big challenge ahead and we have to rise to that and not play to our fears.”
Prior to the turbulence that hit the DA a week ago, Steenhuisen was the party’s chief whip. When Mmusi Maimane resigned as party leader and MP, Steenhuisen lost his post because it is tied to the term of the party’s leader.
But he almost immediately announced he would run for the position of leader of the opposition in Parliament, and days later declared his intention to run as party leader.
“I never thought Mmusi was going to step aside,” Steenhuisen said. “I was under the impression that we would go to an early congress and that he would seek a new mandate.
“But,” he added, “I joined the party with the intention that one day I’d like to lead the party. It’s every politician’s dream.”
Steenhuisen is known as a procedural street fighter, a stickler for parliamentary rules, with an acerbic wit that has often cut deep into the skins of ANC MPs and ministers. He was the DA’s go-to person to sweep parliamentary debates.
He’s had to give that up because the role of leader of the opposition in Parliament rises slightly above the rough and tumble of parliamentary politics.
“Not heckling is going to require a little bit of restraint in the short term but I’ve been a leader in the legislature before [in the Durban metro council and Kwazulu-Natal legislature]. There is a nuanced position, a greater responsibility. And there will be times where we adopt a ‘country first’ approach,” he says.
Steenhuisen appears to admire the sporadic bi-partisan co-operation found in the US Congress. “We can reach across the party aisle where we can work together on some things that unite South Africans. We don’t necessarily need a DA solution or an ANC solution but [rather] look at what’s good for the country.”
In his run for the post of party leader, Steenhuisen says he will respect any outcome. “Whatever the outcome of the November election, I will respect that. I won’t be a ‘Bitter Betty’ and storm out of the party. I think I have an offer to make to the people of the DA. And if they don’t want that, I think that’s fine. I’ll come back to Parliament, I’ll pick up a portfolio and continue to work.”
Steenhuisen’s competitors could include Bonginkosi Madikizela, the leader of the DA in the Western Cape, who said party members had suggested they would nominate him as DA leader. Zwakele Mncwango, the party’s leader in KwaZulu-Natal, has also said he is considering running for the post.
Unlike Kennedy, Steenhuisen does not want to build Camelot, the name bestowed on JFK’s presidency legacy.
He believes in what he calls the “project” — growing the party over the long term, and implementing liberal, free-market policies to stave off an economy in free-fall.
The interim party leader said he won’t move into Maimane’s office, saying the period of upheaval is too fresh, and will probably stay among his pictures, books and other memorabilia.