Democratic Alliance (DA) leader John Steenhuisen has allegedly cast doubt on the party’s longstanding aim to bring the ANC’s share of the votes to below 50% in the next elections, as he tries to negate a backlash over remarks that he would eventually be ready to work with the ruling party.
Three senior party members in parliament said the party leader made this statement this week at a shadow cabinet meeting while attempting to explain his interview in the Sunday Times last week.
Steenhuisen is said to have received backlash from some within his inner circle after his statement to the Sunday paper that he would work with ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.
The paper reported that Steenhuisen said while he would work with Ramaphosa, he would not work with his deputy, David Mabuza. Steenhuisen has denied making this statement. He has also denied saying that the DA would fail to bring the ANC below 50%, saying, “Quite the opposite, actually. I said that we have a very realistic chance to do so. What I did say is that it is unrealistic to think that the DA on its own can get 51%.”
Steenhuisen was attempting to explain that hence the working relationship he had spelled out in the Sunday Times interview was only a remote prospect, potentially realisable further down the line.
Sources said it appeared that Steenhuisen became nervous after the newspaper headline gained traction on Twitter and he feared it might make a portion of DA voters nervous. He was not pushed by the party to file the complaint with the press ombudsman, but appeared to have done so in a knee-jerk attempt at damage control.
Many MPs feel the interview was nothing to frighten the horses, and said it has not sparked a deep crisis within the top ranks of the party. But they feel the ombudsman complaint was not wise, as he had a weak case and risked losing. “I don’t think he has a strong case, and I don’t think it was wise,” said one MP, who added he failed to see the damage inflicted by the interview.
“When I read the interview, there was nothing in there that I found shocking or out of line with what we have been saying since around 2007, that there would be a realignment of South African politics… I think people perhaps do not fully understand what is meant by a working relationship.”
Backlash for the boy in blue
However, the party insiders say Steenhuisen — who has been the DA leader since November last year — was “shook” when he received backlash internally.
During a shadow cabinet meeting on Tuesday, two sources say Steenhuisen said the DA needed to be “practical and realistic” about its expectations in the 2024 elections.
The parliamentary leaders said some supporters were concerned that Steenhuisen had alienated and confused the party’s coalition partners from the smaller parties.
“You have to remember that the DA has upset the smaller parties by saying that voting for them is a wasted vote. Some of his own allies were concerned about what this does to our messaging,” the insider said.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who is in a coalition with the blue party in Nelson Mandela Bay, said it is encouraging that the DA knows that they cannot run the country alone.
His statement also signals the DA is aware that coalitions are here to stay, Holomisa said.
“For them to say they will not work with [the Economic Freedom Fighters] is just spur of the moment. At local government, you don’t have to worry about ideology. Local government is about delivering services. I don’t take Steenhuisen’s statements and panic. Instead, we should be saying we are glad that the DA can work with black parties,” Holomisa told the Mail & Guardian.
Even though Steenhuisen has gone on full-frontal damage control, explaining that the Sunday paper had misquoted him, high-ranking party leaders told M&G that the damage has been done.
When asked about his remarks of not being able to bring the ANC below 50%, he said he had made it clear that the only way to bring about the realignment of politics, establish a rational centre and a new majority to oppose radical socialism is to bring the ANC to under 50%.
However, one source with deep knowledge of the DA’s strategy trajectory was perplexed at the current fallout, saying that Steenhuisen had said “pretty much what Helen [Zille] was saying back 2008.”
The DA strategist explained that the thinking at the time was that should the ANC fall below a majority or if there was a split, the DA would be prepared to work with like-minded people in the ANC.
The slippery slide of the blues
The DA has battled to regain its traditional voters after a decline in its numbers during the 2019 elections. The party’s poor election result was coupled with its factional battles that ultimately saw former leader Mmusi Maimane’s resignation and the reemergence of Zille as federal council chair.
“We can’t talk about being an alternative government and then say that we want to work with the ANC. There is no different ANC,” one party leader said. To single out Ramaphosa is putting us in the middle of ANC battles. People feel betrayed, and they think it will hurt us with our voters too. Helen coming out with her own explanation also gives the notion that she is the de facto leader. This also confuses voters.” The insiders explained that Steenhuisen’s dilemma, with which Maimane also contended, was when Cyril Ramaphosa became president, whether to lump him together with the ANC or almost elevate him to slightly above the party.
“Maimane chose the former, and he got backlash from the country, donors and party. It was a mess. It’s clear now that while Ramaphosa is palatable, he is not any different from his comrades,” the party insider said.
“John didn’t realise that the time is different. This is his first take of an internal pushback, and it has got him shook because he doesn’t know how to react to dissenting voices.”
Scramble for votes and funding
The DA’s troubles continue to escalate as the party scrambles to attract voters, the insiders say.
According to one party leader who sits in its federal executive, the party is even scrambling to gain existing voters’ confidence.
This has been highlighted by the party’s letter to its staff that a fresh round of retrenchments was underway. The M&G understands that the party is also planning to sell its Bruma headquarters at less than market value.
However, the chief executive of the party, Simon Dickinson, said if the party should sell Nkululeko House, then this would be at a market-related price and not below.
“The impact of Covid-19 has shown the party that Zoom and flexible home working is an effective way of working. We simply do not require as much property space as we did before the crisis and are therefore exploring various property options in the market,” he said.
Dickinson said the party was financially stable and has already raised a significant portion of its election budget, and was continuing to grow its donor base.
However, one party leader said the party was in “deep financial trouble”, adding that Nkululeko House’s sale was a sign that the DA “does not have the money for the elections”.
“The donors are not buying into the combination of John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille. Now people are starting to worry that they were sold an idea that was not true,” the party insider said.
Some party leaders are concerned that Steenhuisen has not found his voice.
“There are people who say for someone in his position, given that [Steenhuisen] had the better half of a year as interim leader, people are very concerned that we come off as very whiny. People have not felt that the public has come in behind us. There is no inspiration coming from him,” the party leader said.