Steenhuisen is a shoo-in as DA leader, but he needs help

John Steenhuisen will be the next leader of the Democratic Alliance. It will take a minor miracle for either John Moody (the DA’s Gauteng leader) or Mbali Ntuli (an MPL in KwaZulu-Natal) to beat him. Steenhuisen shouldn’t be excited about this victory because his biggest political challenges await him the morning after, and it is not obvious he has the ability or the right team to help him succeed. 

But let’s start with a detour about Ntuli and Moody before explaining Steenhuisen’s challenges ahead. Ntuli has been part of the DA for at least 12 years and knows the party well. She is politically savvy, affable, eloquent and thinks long and hard about political strategy and tactics. She rose quickly through the youth ranks to become the federal chair of the DA Youth only about two years after she had been through the DA’s Young Leaders programme.

The problem for Ntuli started when she disagreed with the likes of recalcitrant Helen Zille, and some of the other old guard. Consequently, after 2014, Ntuli self-exiled to KwaZulu-Natal. She will deny the motive and justify her provincial focus on a sincere desire to build branches in the rural areas. The DA has done exceptionally well to compete with both the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in a province where it traditionally had a negligent footprint. Precisely because Ntuli enjoys rolling up her sleeves, she has done a great job of spearheading political campaigns in that province.

But here’s the snag. She went from being nationally prominent between about 2010 and 2014 to increased obscurity over the past five years. Most voting delegates at the party’s elective conference do not know her. Many wouldn’t recognise her at their local Spar even if their lives depended on spotting her. 

In politics, visibility is everything. Ntuli is invisible. She has tried to cobble together something of a media campaign in the past few weeks but it is too little too late.

Ntuli is also disadvantaged by ageism and patriarchy. Some voting delegates like her but think she should wait another five years or so before running to become the party’s leader. This is rubbish, because many older people in politics suck, and many democracies in the world are beginning to ditch the assumption that young people cannot lead. 

In Ntuli’s case this ageism is especially unfair given that she is an experienced politician who knows the party just as well as Steenhuisen.

As a new mother, Ntuli has also encountered some responses from people who like her but imply that she would be ready to lead when her baby is older. This obsession with the bodies of women, and the alleged inability of working mothers to be career professionals and parents, is regressive. But it is the world we live in. Ntuli, unlike Moody and Steenhuisen, will be judged negatively for being young and a new mother. Any “ag shame” response doesn’t change the conclusion: she will not be elected the next DA leader.

As for Moody … Who? John who? I interviewed him on 702 recently and found him fascinating. He struck me as a pragmatist who genuinely wants to help build communities that work, communities within which everyone, but especially the working classes, thrives. 

He isn’t interested in arcane theoretical debates about political philosophy or theory, nor does he have “woke” soundbites on race and identity to feed the discourse of the here and now. He comes from, and is part of, a blended family and understands the frustrations of people on the margins of a city like Johannesburg. I sense that Moody’s heart is in the right place. But I am sorry, mate, you also have a visibility problem. 

Both Moody and Ntuli have picked up the phones to reach out to voting delegates, and have communications and political strategists helping them. They keep a tally of “the numbers” in the race for the leadership position. But this is all fanciful. Let’s keep it real. Not even black and coloured voters in the Western Cape will vote for Moody over Steenhuisen. They cannot trust the guy because they do not know him.

Do they genuinely know Steenhuisen? No. But Steenhuisen has several advantages. First, he has hypervisibility because of his prominent and excellent roles in the National Assembly. Both as chief whip of the DA, and now as caucus leader of the parliamentary party, he has demonstrated a magisterial grasp of the rules of the game. 

He leads by example, with a muscularity that lands well within the DA. Sure, he divides Twitter, but Twitter isn’t going to the elective conference. DA supporters in places like Wellington aren’t of the same bent as a black leftie online criticising Steenhuisen’s enjoyment of white privilege. Inside the DA, Steenhuisen will be rewarded for his prominence and his oversight performance we have all seen on our screens for many years now. His weaknesses are well hidden — but are not big enough to give either Ntuli nor Moody a shot at beating him.

Moody would do well to throw in the towel. He should support Ntuli’s campaign to present voters with a choice between an older conservative white English-speaking gent who asserts that he is a liberal and a younger black woman who, unlike Steenhuisen, gets the class and racial complexities of our society. That choice must be starkly imposed on delegates and they should be persuaded to think about which candidate would be better to threaten the ANC in a society in which voters are younger and also not colour-blind. 

Ntuli would still lose, but the contest would be more competitive, and serve the DA better in the long run by planting the seeds for a future capture of the party machinery after Steenhuisen’s leadership stint fails to deliver growth.

Why am I implying Steenhuisen may win the leadership battle, but lose the electoral war outside the party? It is pretty simple. Despite telling me on my radio show that voters need to be given a clear alternative to the ANC, Steenhuisen’s alternative amounted to ANC bashing rather than articulating a distinctive vision. 

He recently, disingenuously, criticised the DA leadership for running a negative campaign against President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019, but ask him almost any policy question — What is your view on black economic empowerment (BEE)? What is your view on the land question? — and most of his answers focus on the ANC. So, under Steenhuisen’s leadership, there will not be a content and tonal shift in how the DA engages with the ANC. 

Steenhuisen is the gold standard of the adversarial Westminster-style of politics, which he says voters find tiring — but he is wrong to imply that he represents the opposite. He would have slotted perfectly into the House of Commons as a passionate backbencher bobbing up and down. Inside the National Assembly, we need this style. But during elections Steenhuisen lacks diversity in how he deals with his political opponents. The ANC will benefit from Steenhuisen being himself. He has to improve the range of ways of communicating. I doubt he will.

Another reason Steenhuisen’s leadership will not yield returns for the party that its former leader, Mmusi Maimane, could not generate is that Steenhuisen will be singing from the Zille hymn sheet on questions of race, identity and economic justice. It doesn’t matter how much corruption is sponsored by the ANC, it will not cost the ANC fatally for as long as the most senior DA leaders refuse to accept a deep, and serious, commitment to racial justice, including an explicit commitment to race-based redress.

Economic growth is necessary, but not sufficient to kill racism. Racism, including institutional and economic racism, requires leadership that knows that the opposite of the ANC’s failed BEE policies aren’t colour-blind policies that speak of “need”, which is running away from the racialised experiential realities of the black majority. 

Steenhuisen will not be a champion for anti-racism and policies that centre the phenomenology of black life. He can hardly speak comfortably about white privilege.

So, in the end, Steenhuisen will have on his CV “leader of the DA”, but his biggest challenge will be to surround himself, not with the likes of Zille, Mike Waters and other DA politicians out of touch with the country we live in, but, ironically, with Moody and Ntuli, and the likes of Makashule Gana and Mike Moriarty, to show his willingness to take seriously the viewpoints of those who disagree with his convictions. They know stuff that he doesn’t. 

Let’s see if he will be recalcitrant or savvy.

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