Frontline Africa Advisory

Leadership race between Ntuli and Steenhuisen accentuates DA’s race (and ideological) dilemma

Leadership race between Ntuli and Steenhuisen accentuates DA’s race (and ideological) dilemma

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is heading for a virtual elective conference on 31 October-1 November 2020, after the original date of May 2020 had to be changed owing to the on-going coronavirus pandemic.  The top contenders for the Federal Leader position are the current interim Leader John Steenhuisen and former DA Youth Leader, Mbali Ntuli.

It is worth noting that Ntuli initially objected to a virtual conference, owing to possible technological and internet connectivity challenges for the party’s rural and semi-urban conference delegates. Ntuli sees rural and semi-urban members of the party, as her core constituency and are vital to her winning the race. Ntuli considers herself as the best candidate to carry out the deepest aspirations of these members who are unhappy with the resurgence of white neo-liberalism, exemplified by the return of Hellen Zille as Federal Chairperson in 2019. Zille is understood to be supporting Steenhuisen in the leadership contest.

The DA has always faced a serious race and, to some degree, ideological dilemma. It is a party deeply rooted in splits and mergers, as it sought to inscribe its identity, especially on South Africa’s post-apartheid political ontology. this saw the party working with white parties such as New National Party, the Federal Alliance and cosying up to black parties such as AgangandIndependent Democrats. The DA’s vacillation does not signify ideological reincarnation, though; for the party remains deeply rooted in liberal constitutionalism, underpinned by a free market economic theory. Federalism is another pivotal element of the DA’s outlook, with the party’s governing of the Western Cape mostly seen as its modelling of an enclave of white supremacist avatar. That being said, the DA’s approach to and articulation of the so-called national imperatives of addressing the historic legacy of colonialism and apartheid is influenced,  by two mutually reinforcing factors: who is at the helm of the party and how to grow the party’s support base. 

The party’s bid to attract more black voters under Hellen Zille paid off with a return of  22.33% in the 2014 elections. It can be said that the increase was mainly due to black voter’s disillusionment with the ANC under Jacob Zuma, than its policies. That all changed in 2019, as the party lost electoral support for the first time since the dawn of democracy. The loss in support was due to the party’s dithering on race-based issues relating to historical redress such as affirmative action, Broad Based Economic Empowerment and land expropriation to name a few. The resultant loss saw its leader Mmusi Maimane being criticised for trying to make the DA a pro-black party and subsequently ousted. Maimane’s sin was to seek, albeit stutteringly, to transform the image and policies of the party in an effort to make inroads into the ANC’s traditional support base: the semi-urban, township and rural areas. Since Mmusi’s departure, the party has resorted to ‘default settings’ with the return of the old guard led by Hellen Zille regaining control of the party.

The party has just concluded its policy conference on the 5th and 6th of September where it affirmed its long-held views on race-based policies. The party has come out to explicitly oppose quotas and the use of race as a basis for socio-economic policies. The party has formally embraced the so called principle of non-racialism, which in its truest essence negates the collective group experience of black people and makes it impossible to recognize the remnants of systemic injustice that continue to exist. To justify their policy position has been the postulation that two decades is enough for transformative action. In other words – this is the DA saying, “get over it already”. Rising unemployment rates, poverty and landlessness amongst other socio-economic issues faced by historically disadvantaged South Africans, points to the inexcusable policy failures of the contemporary ANC-led government. However, the DA’s policy stance continues to fail to actively address colonial legacies in which racial inequality is embedded. The foundational principles that the DA has re-adopted over the past weekend are not new and remain characteristic of the anti-BBBEE faction of the party. The policy conference clearly became an opportunity for the party to collectively re-align themselves to their old policy goals that will surely sideline most of its black constituents. The result of these policy developments will largely shape and influence the leadership contestation that will have profound repercussions for the party’s future electoral growth.

Whilst, John Steenhuisen is seen to represent the old order in terms of the party’s outlook on South Africa’s socio-economic issues, Mbali Ntuli envisions a party that not only acknowledges issues of raced based poverty, social inequality as well as the need for economic redress on paper but rather, a DA that actively engages its constituency on such issues. As she has maintained in several of her media statements, there is a need for the DA to realign its politics to ensure a “core for a new majority”. with the party adopting policies that go against her campaign thus far, her fate has been effectively sealed.

Though Steenhuisen’s leadership campaign creates an illusion of his commitment to historical redress, his views on the principle of non-racialism and the need to move away from racial redress point to his alignment to those seeking to preserve the party’s white image. The idea of having a young black female in a position of leadership is going to be thwarted by that powerful group, Lindiwe Mazibuko can attest to that. Given what the party experienced with a black leader in an effort to attract more black voters and ended up losing both black and white voters, it will most likely avoid the ‘mistake’ of allowing Ntuli to ascend to the top position. Her eventual loss to John Steenhuisen will be a final nail to the coffin of those seeking to transform and get the party to acknowledge the historical injustices of apartheid to the black population.

Written by Neo Tsotetsi

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