The Democratic Alliance (DA) should choose Mbali Ntuli as its next leader but will make the mistake of choosing John Steenhuisen.
If I turn out to be wrong about how the leadership race ends, I will apologise to voting delegates of the DA for my poor predictive powers.
The choice between Ntuli and Steenhuisen is not an easy one. I want to explain how I see the choice as someone who has, for many years, taken a close interest in the state of opposition politics.
Firstly, Steenhuisen is a very strong candidate, and an interesting politician who should not be dismissed and criticised waspishly as some are wont to do.
I have, on too many occasions to bother recalling, defended Steenhuisen against thin descriptions of him as a weak politician. He is not. For starters, he is one of our best MPs. He is an excellent example of an MP who takes very seriously the accountability role of members of Parliament over the government of the day.
This is a role you can only perform effectively if you are slavishly committed to understanding parliamentary processes, and rules. Not only must you have a magisterial grasp of these rules and processes, you also need to be a lover of facts and research so that your procedural expertise can be applied to particular pieces of legislation, and to executive members appearing before parliament.
Steenhuisen meets these success criteria easily. There is also the reality — even if it is one that can be debated as not inherently a good one — that from a form and style point of view, a lot of our political structures and processes are adversarial, and borrows from the British system that has influenced our approach to law-making and accountability.
Steenhuisen is, in my opinion, a cogent speaker, with linguistic dexterity that few can match. It is why the role of being a whip is one he could perform well, and it is this kind of strength of character and personality that allows one to lead a caucus also.
But the same strengths can also be major weaknesses if they are not accompanied by appropriate levels of self-examination. Steenhuisen, unfortunately for him, does not have a diverse political toolkit in terms of how he approaches political speech and general communication. He is often shouty, often recalcitrant, and very seldom soft to the touch, in discursive terms.
When I think of Steenhuisen, I think of an angry white man with a permanent frown. I don’t like that look and feel in a country where our differences and fault lines require a political leader to be capable of both adversarial approaches to debate, and also to be capable of deep empathy, humility, and active listening.
Steenhuisen does not have this kind of reach, this kind of diversity in his political armoury. That alone makes him a one-trick political pony, and that is a gift to the governing ANC in a country in which survivors of deep colonial and apartheid pain and suffering want to have their lives not only radically transformed but also want their pain to be understood, and their need for their lived experiences to be rendered visible, acknowledged and honoured.
Steenhuisen is not that kind of leader.
Steenhuisen is more Tony Leon than he is, say, Mmusi Maimane. The latter had many weaknesses politically but at the level of affect he was a better proposition than Steenhuisen.
Ntuli, on the other hand, beats Steenhuisen on precisely these points. She is capable of tough normative and policy debate (which is why Steenhuisen is running away from debating her). At the same time, she is not scared of feelings, and of stories. Stories are crucial to what makes us human.
In many ways, language and stories are as central to our humanity as the fulfilment of our material needs. Ntuli is far more authentic in reaching out , and listening with empathy and humility, to the lived experiences and realities of most South Africans, compared to the brittle John Steenhuisen.
For an internal party election, these traits may not make Ntuli a front-runner, but for a general election in which the DA should surely aim at getting 30% or more of the national vote, Steenhuisen’s weaknesses will cost the DA.
Similarly, the strengths of Ntuli will be lost outside of the leadership position, especially given the thin skin of Steenhuisen, who is unlikely to even show much emotional intelligence in
how he reaches out to Ntuli once she loses the leadership race.
Simply put, Ntuli has a far more diverse political toolkit than Steenhuisen does, even if voting delegates of the DA won’t see that to be the case.
But one might dismiss the core of what I have argued so far as all about aesthetics. I think that would be a mistake because voters do respond to politicians as human beings and not as machines with ideas. So how a politician lands or does not land is relevant to whether or not they are a desirable candidate for leading the party upfront.
At any rate, here is an additional difficulty for Camp Steenhuisen. Even if we restricted ourselves to “ideas”, Steenhuisen is still not the better of the two candidates.
You (still) cannot be an effective political party leader in South Africa if you do not have a good handle on the race question. Steenhuisen does not get the criticality of our racialised identities, and thinks that the biological incoherence of the concept also undercuts its social and political potency.
That is obviously false, and leads him therefore also to punt very weird policy ideas that refuse to track the racist truths about our society.
He thinks that all our racism ills can be cured by no longer referencing race, and only focusing on some material economic issues in under-theorised class terms. It is incoherent, and dishonest.
Ntuli, on the other hand, isn’t scared to talk about the racist and racial realities of our society.
Racism is an original South African political sin and you cannot eliminate its deep contemporary consequences by appealing to colour-blind policies and making people feel guilty for articulating the truth about how race, among other identity traits, shape their experiences within our society.
So, when all is said and done, Ntuli would do far better to challenge the ANC than Steenhuisen could. She would do far better than him in challenging the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Because she will not — unlike him — enter debates with the other major political parties on the basis of a tissue of lies about what society we are living in (as opposed to one we do not live in).
Steenhuisen will fire up the DA’s base. He will not grow the party’s appeal beyond that base.
If the DA wants to be permanently in second place, then Steenhuisen is their person. If they want to be bolder and attempt to wrestle power away from the horrifically morally bankrupt ANC, then they should take a chance on Ntuli, who better understands the society we are living in.
If I was an EFF or ANC politician during the next general elections, I would be far happier to debate John Steenhuisen than Mbali Ntuli.
Does this mean Ntuli has no weaknesses? She does. All politicians have weaknesses. They are human. Her biggest mistake, as I have argued before, is that she self-exiled to KwaZulu-Natal instead of focusing on growing her brand nationally, both within the DA and within the country.
This is why Steenhuisen has better odds of winning this leadership race.
Ntuli might brag, and rightly so, about growing the DA’s support and membership in parts of KwaZulu-Natal where it never had a presence, and she may boast of having better receipts to bottom-up party activism work than Steenhuisen, but I am afraid it is all about voting delegates.
She is not as cut-throat as Steenhuisen and her team is not as resourceful as his. She is going to need a miracle to win this race.
I think she knows this, but is making the arguments against Steenhuisen for strategic reasons that go beyond this leadership race. I think she wants to compel the party to become comfortable with self-examination, and she wants to inspire others in her party to come out in support of her kind of identity politics, and liberal egalitarian agenda that differs from Steenhuisen’s.
That is noble. It should strengthen the party. It is just a pity that Steenhuisen has been averse to open debate about these issues.
We need the DA to be as strong as possible. This is crucial for the sake of our democracy. A Steenhuisen-led DA is not the strongest DA we could have but it is the one we are likely to be saddled with in the months to come.