Steenhuisen hints at Maimane’s exit hurting the DA at the polls

Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen has dismissed suggestions that his weak leadership is at root of the party’s downward trajectory, with projections pointing to it losing control of the Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay metros in this week’s local government elections.

Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, Steenhuisen apportioned some of the blame on the exit of Mmusi Maimane as DA leader after the party’s poor showing in the 2019 general vote.

Numbers from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) suggest that the two biggest parties — the DA and the governing ANC — will see a significant drop in voter support. The ANC’s share is expected to fall from 54.5% in 2016 to 46.7%, and the DA is expected to decline from 27% five years ago to 22.6% this year.

After securing governing coalitions with other parties in the metros of Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg in 2016, indications are that the DA will see a decline in support there. 

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the party is projected to decline from 46.7% five years ago to 44.1% this year. The party received 39.4% of the votes in the 2019 general election. In Tshwane, the party is expected to receive 34.3% of the vote, from 43.1% in 2016. In 2019, it garnered 29.5%.

In Johannesburg, the CSIR projections indicate that the blue party will receive 31.4% of the votes, from 38.5% in 2016 and 29.6% in 2019.

“We will wait until the results come in. The benchmark is not 2016: the benchmark is the last election. You have 20.7 % of the votes in the last election. We were happy with growth, consolidation and progress from the DA from that election. We came out of that  election with a leader having walked off the job. It’s very few parties in the world that survive that. I’m going to be very pleased with growth and momentum in this particular election,” Steenhuisen insisted on Tuesday.

Steenhuisen, who has been adamant that the DA will not entertain any coalition arrangements with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), said the horse trading would  start when there was clarity about the final result. 

“There will be a number of options I’m sure and we will act in the best interest,” he said, adding that the party would be comfortable participating in councils as the opposition.

“We still believe there are a lot of votes that have to be counted. If we don’t take [a] majority we will look at coalitions and if coalitions aren’t possible, I’m very happy and comfortable for the DA to go on to the opposition benches and be … excellent  … there, as we have been in parliament.”

Sources have told the Mail & Guardian that the DA leader was losing popularity within the party

Steenhuisen has also fallen short in terms of bringing back traditional white voters, which the dominant faction in the DA had believed him capable of doing.

“What we have done is to alienate one voting group to appease the other and that has not worked,” one party leader said, adding that the resignation of prominent former DA MP Phumzile van Damme had also hurt the party’s image.

In 2019, a panel review report on the party’s general elections performance — by former leaders Tony Leon and Ryan Coetzee, together with Capitec founder Michiel le Roux — tabled before the DA’s federal council, found that the party’s relentless focus of winning over black supporters was understandable, but that taking existing voters for granted was always a mistake.

“It is striking that, over a period of many years, the DA failed to heed a number of warnings that it was alienating sections of the white Afrikaans electorate,” the panel said. 

In an interview with News24 in 2019, Steenhuisen said he would not be caught up in merely critiquing the government party’s policies all the time, a criticism levied against Maimane, but would come up with the DA’s own new, exciting, bold ideas.

“If you go through his speech at our final rally, he (Steenhuisen) mentioned the ANC 32 times. This is in contrast with what he promised when he wanted to be leader. We are still focused on the ANC and it’s not gaining any traction, black or white,” a DA source told M&G this week.

A Steenhuisen ally said the elections could threaten his authority in the party, but added that it would not be fair to blame a loss on one individual.

Defending the DA’s governance in Tshwane on Tuesday, Steenhuisen accused the ANC, which controls the overall Gauteng province, of having frustrated his party’s administration by placing the metro under administration.This was later overturned by the courts. 

“Had we had a free hand there and the provincial government allowed us to do the job we were elected to do, we could have done a lot more and that is why we have made a pitch to residents of Tshwane that we would like to have a bigger majority, so that we don’t have to live from council meeting to council meeting and we can have an uninterrupted term of government without provincial government trying to undermine the municipality at every turn,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the DA also declared an early victory on Tuesday in one of its staple municipalities in Kouga in the Eastern Cape province. Steenhuisen said the party’s internal projections indicated the DA had received a clear majority, with 16 seats in council, followed by the ANC with 11 seats, and the Patriotic Alliance, Freedom Front Plus and the EFF with one seat each. 

Steenhuisen said the DA had shown that it could govern well in Kouga, which has been described as the best-run municipality in the Eastern Cape.

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Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa
Lizeka Tandwa is a political journalist with a keen interest in local government.

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