‘Veteran’s stripes’ vs ‘kind and fair’

As expected, the supporters of DA interim leader John Steenhuisen and KwaZulu-Natal MPL Mbali Ntuli both believe their preferred candidates have the vision and leadership abilities to take the official opposition to new heights, even though Steenhuisen has been touted as a shoo-in for federal leader.

A dozen supporters whom the Mail & Guardian spoke to this week all expressed admiration for the leadership abilities of both candidates, with the proverbial crunch coming in the form of track record and the ability to connect with South Africans.

The party starts its online federal congress on Saturday, with 2039 delegates set to vote electronically and results are expected on Sunday afternoon. There are 39 hybrid venues across the country for delegates who don’t have adequate connectivity. Electronic voting stations have been set up in the venues and outside auditors will sign off on the results.

Steenhuisen and Ntuli — both from KwaZulu-Natal  — are expected to cast their votes at the hybrid station inside Durban’s Tropicana Hotel.

Steenhuisen has run an on-the-ground campaign, travelling to meet delegates face-to-face across provinces, in some cases up to four times. Ntuli’s campaign has mostly been run online and made available for public consumption, which is part of her stance on taking a more transparent approach to internal mechanisms. 

Internal polling conducted by Steenhuisen’s campaign team has placed him firmly in the lead, with some provinces expected to vote 90 or 100% in his favour. Ntuli’s campaign team, however, has told the M&G that her support should not be underestimated.

Team Steenhuisen

Mpumalanga party leader and DA veteran of 22 years, Jane Sithole, told the M&G that the official opposition needed a “strong leader with a vision to stabilise the party”.

“John is the right person to lead the DA right now. He is able to regain the confidence of voters and lead us into 2021. After the turmoil the party has experienced, we need him. He has given me hope. He has a strong vision to fix the DA and the country. I was sold.” 

Steenhuisen could communicate with voters and potential voters of all races and classes, she said, and he walks the leadership talk.

He has “earned his stripes” she added. Mpumalanga has 70 voting delegates, with Steenhuisen having “101% support”. 

Limpopo MPL Risham Maharaj told the M&G that “95% of the province’s delegates are behind John”.
“I have been following his career for a while. He has moved through the ranks. In my opinion, he has been the best whip in the history of parliament.” Steenhuisen was not afraid to criticise the governing party, but also provided workable solutions and alternatives, he said. “He has an exceptional track record.”

Angel Khanyile, the party’s shadow minister of home affairs, said Steenhuisen was the clear demonstration to all South Africans that they do not have to follow leaders because of race: “We need a leader to speak for all South Africans and he is more than capable.” 

Team Ntuli

Gauteng’s MPL Makashule Gana said Ntuli would bring “fresh ideas” to the party and country if elected. “There is a need for a different way of doing politics, a different way of connecting to South Africans.”

Ntuli’s stance on socio-economic justice (that black South Africans bear the brunt of poverty and inequality and must be on the receiving end of redress) “gives one hope” he said.

Some of Ntuli’s ideas were already party policy, he added, but those had to be coupled with leadership qualities: “She is really able to connect with people, even when she was working on the ground in uMkhanyakude.”

The growth of the DA in uMkhanyakude and other rural areas in KwaZulu-Natal, once considered the exclusive domain of the IFP and ANC, has been attributed to Ntuli and the province’s party leader, Zwakele Mncwango, who has thrown his weight behind her:  “I am happy that [both candidates] are from KwaZulu-Natal, it shows the strides we have made as a party,” he told the M&G.

“The campaigns from Ntuli and Steenhuisen have made it clear that both are great leaders. I had to make a choice though, and for where we are as a party, with so many challenges that are not unique to our party, we need someone strong, kind and fair [Ntuli’s campaign slogan].”

Those qualities are critical in a DA leader and a leader of society, he said.

“We need a leader who is fair so that we reach a point of equal opportunities in the party and society, where those from certain race groups or ethnic groups are not the only ones benefiting.”

MP Hlanganani Gumbi contends it is Mbali’s courage and principles that make her the right person for the job: “She can get people excited again about the party so that people who have never voted are going to vote. The country is in a really bad crisis, and if our party doesn’t secure a path to realigning politics in South Africa, we are all in deep trouble.”

For MP Haniff Hoosen, a KwaZulu-Natal heavyweight, endorsing Ntuli has as much to do with her leadership abilities as her youth and gender.

Listening to Ntuli in the party’s internal debate on Wednesday evening was “goosebump stuff” he told the M&G.

State of the party

The DA had, until the 2019 national and provincial elections, experienced growth in every local and national election since 1994.

In 1994, it secured just 1.73% of the vote, or 338 426 votes, but by 2014 the party secured 22.20% from 4 091 584 votes. By any standard, this is a remarkable increase.

In the 2016 local election, the party under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, finally broke the ceiling in Gauteng, reducing the ANC to below 50% in several municipalities, including Tshwane and Johannesburg.

Although it was not an election for a provincial government, it was the first time the ANC vote share in the province had been reduced to below 50% which meant that the DA had a real shot of taking control of the engine room of the country after the 2019 national and provincial elections if it so wished. 

But an ill-fated decision to form a loosely defined coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in 2016 to co-govern the major Gauteng metros and large towns, creeping policy uncertainty about racial diversity, internal squabbles that bled into public discourse, Helen Zille’s social media posts as well as the party’s approach to the ANC’s policy of black economic empowerment, led to well-publicised policy confusion and dissent.   

The issues manifested in the 2019 national and provincial elections where the party lost nearly 2% of its overall voting share, securing 20.77%, but failing to push the ANC below the 50% threshold in Gauteng.

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