Democratic Alliance interim leader John Steenhuisen told the 2 039 delegates at the party’s virtual federal congress on Saturday that being “battle-tested” made him the right person to lead the official opposition away from its recent turbulent past.

“I am battle-tested, and I am ready to lead you in the fight to save our beautiful country,” said Steenhuisen.

“It will be the fight of our lives, but together we can win it, and together, we can march towards that new horizon of hope that beckons for our party and our country.”

Touted as a shoo-in for the leadership position by his large support base, 44-year-old Steenhuisen made the remarks during his five-minute pre-vote speech, after those made by KwaZulu-Natal member of the legislature Mbali Ntuli.

Although Ntuli does not have the following or experience of former national whip Steenhuisen, she has been active in the party for 14 years and is considered an asset, despite some members having severely criticised her for airing the DA’s internal disagreements in the public domain.

She has also found favour with the country’s media, with some commentators describing her as an alternative to Steenhuisen’s mostly strict liberal approach to policy and racial redress.

Meanwhile, Steenhuisen said that the “most important fix” made by the party since he took over the interim leadership role a year ago was “a renewed focus on the ABCs of politics — activism, branches and campaigning”.

He said, “true activism” and “committed activism” were behind the DA’s rise from a 1% party to becoming the official opposition in 1999.

Steenhuisen conducted his campaign mostly through Zoom during the hard lockdown but later travelled the provinces to meet delegates. 

“I really believe that reigniting our activist base will be key to winning power from the ANC in 2024. Times may have changed, but there is no substitute for face-to-face communication with voters.

“Under my watch, gone are the days of buying more smart tablets [instead] of training activists. Gone are the days of treating activists as little more than survey workers. Gone are the days of Facebook politicians taking credit for the hard work of our activists. And gone are the days of people being parachuted into positions at the expense of our hard-working members,” he said.

In their speeches, both candidates acknowledged the hardships faced by the DA in the year preceding the event, which saw Mmusi Maimane’s dramatic exit, the result of an internal review panel established to probe the party’s poor election results.

The 32-year-old Ntuli has been running on a tagline of  “kind, strong and fair” for her digitally driven campaign, and told delegates that such was the recipe for “making the Democratic Alliance a majority government in this country”.

 “I ran my campaign showing that what I want for this party is for everybody to feel included in the decision-making and the way that the party is making to negotiate our shared values.

“I don’t think that disagreement, or seeing things differently, is a bad thing. The idea of diversity as a part of our principles is the one that should be cherished the most as the Democratic Alliance, Ntuli said.

“I want to move our party to a place where everybody feels they have equal ability to be able to say where they believe the Democratic Alliance should be going forward, and how we should be talking to voters on the ground.”

The party had “great governance”, said Ntuli, which needed to be leveraged.

Coalface workers such as councillors and DA youth needed more access to resources, she said, so that the DA brand would permeate thoroughly at a grassroots level.

“That is why I have said we need a new way of politics; a way that shows that we are serious about taking this [ANC-led] government that has had impunity and looting and corruption out of the office and that we will make South Africa work by

professionalising our public service and ensuring a [future filled with dignity for all citizens].”

Voting closed at 5pm on Saturday, with the results expected on Sunday afternoon.