Five provincial leaders back the incumbent, but the challenger says it’s time for a black woman to steer the ship.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) will be choosing its leaders in April, with the current leader, John Steenhuisen, receiving the most backing so far for re-election to the helm of the party.
Running against Steenhuisen is former Johannesburg mayor Mpho Phalatse, who told DM168 that the party was ready for a black woman to steer the ship.
The nomination process started on 6 February and will end on 13 March. The party’s national congress will be held in April.
At least five provincial leaders believe that Steenhuisen deserves a second term as party leader and that he has what it takes to lead the party to a successful 2024 national election campaign.
The party’s Eastern Cape leader, Nqaba Bhanga, is among those who believe that Steenhuisen is a formidable leader.
“He has done very well as the leader of the DA. John is still the suitable candidate to lead us to 2024. Yes, he has his limitations, but he has been able to stabilise the party. I do not think it is necessary to change the leadership,” said Bhanga.
Others who have thrown their weight behind Steenhuisen include North West leader Leon Basson, Northern Cape leader Harold McGluwa, Limpopo leader Jane Sithole and KwaZulu-Natal leader Francois Rodgers.
Basson said: “The DA and South Africa need a leader with a proven track record that can keep the party focused on the major issues like cost of living and load shedding, and who cares about the future of the party and country.”
McGluwa said Steenhuisen would be an important part of the DA’s national election campaign. “Without hesitation and with great pride, I am endorsing John Steenhuisen to be re-elected as leader of the DA,” said McGluwa.
“He has carried the DA since 2019, when the party went through an extremely difficult period, marked by the DA’s declining support, a leadership crisis and the Covid pandemic.
“We have regained lost ground and, most importantly, the confidence of our voters. On top of that, John took the party and set us back on solid ground as he reaffirmed a commitment to the party’s values and principles, and was able to reassure voters that the DA was still relevant and a very important part of this democracy.
“John is always on the ground and he goes to where he is needed most. He leads from the front, can be trusted and is deserving of the position of federal leader. I indeed have full trust in John.”
Steenhuisen launched his campaign in Cape Town in November 2022. Speaking to DM168, he explained that the party had been in a “dark” place when he became the leader.
The period he was referring to was when the party’s support declined at the 2019 polls. This was followed by the exit of Mmusi Maimane as party leader. Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba was next to resign and over time the DA lost several of its senior black leaders, including former KwaZulu-Natal MPL Mbali Ntuli and former MP Phumzile van Damme.
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Steenhuisen said: “I think there is stability and coherence ideologically and organisationally that I have managed to bring to the DA, and it is a far cry from the write-off many people were saying that we were heading towards.
“I would like to lead the party into what I believe is going to be the most important elections for the DA and South Africa since 1994. It looks like, for the first time in 75 years, we will not have a majority party governing.
“It opens up some very exciting opportunities for the DA looking forward.”
He became the interim leader of the party when Maimane left the DA in 2019 and was officially elected leader at the party’s 2020 congress.
That was the congress at which Helen Zille was elected as the Federal Council chairperson, and Refiloe Nt’sekhe and Jacques Smalle were announced as the first and second deputy federal chairpersons, respectively.
Steenhuisen has served in the National Assembly since 2011, and before that he was involved in politics in KwaZulu-Natal. He was elected as a councillor in Durban at the age of 22, and served as the provincial leader of the DA and as the party’s caucus leader in the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature.
However, he has been the centre of controversy on several occasions.
Last year, he was heavily criticised for referring to his ex-wife as “roadkill” during an interview with MacGyver “MacG” Mukwevho and Sol Phenduka on the YouTube show Podcast and Chill.
During his tenure, the party also got into hot water for campaign posters that read “The ANC called you racists. The DA calls you heroes”, which were put up in the largely Indian township of Phoenix after the July 2021 riots.
The DA said the posters were to honour those who stood up to protect their homes during the July unrest.
However, the posters were widely criticised for fuelling racial tension because 36 people had been killed in the area during the riots. The party ended up removing the controversial posters.
Steenhuisen’s rival, Phalatse, said she was confident she would get enough support to win the leadership, adding that members might not openly endorse her for fear of being victimised.
“Let’s say all provincial leaders want John; they only make up nine delegates. I think that many people have been waiting for someone else to put up their hand. What I stand for is something that resonates with DA members,” she said.
Phalatse was a member of the mayoral committee in the City of Joburg during Herman Mashaba’s term as mayor. She succeeded him as mayor and served in the position until her recent ousting.
Phalatse’s political career started at the Alexandra Clinic when, as a doctor, she realised the extent of the problems in public health. That led to her becoming a councillor in Johannesburg with the aim of helping the township of Alexandra.
Phalatse was removed as mayor after a motion of no confidence brought by African Transformation Movement councillor Lubabalo Magwentshu last month.
Her ousting came barely three months after the high court overturned a motion of no confidence against her.
She had previously faced several other motions of no confidence, but some failed and some were withdrawn.
Johannesburg and the cities of Ekurhuleni and Tshwane have been ruled by DA-led multiparty coalitions since the 2021 local government elections, when the ANC was relegated to the opposition benches after its support fell below 50% for the first time.
In her effort to stay at the helm of the Johannesburg council last year, Phalatse submitted a proposal to the DA to work with the EFF to keep control of the city. However, her idea was rejected, causing tension within the party at the time.
Phalatse told DM168 that all parties had to change the way they dealt with coalitions.
“We all need to introspect to ensure the stability and growth of coalitions.
“There needs to be legislation on how coalitions are formed, which can allow for greater protection of government structures,” she said.
Deputy federal leader race
Bhanga told DM168 that he was eyeing the position of deputy federal leader and would not stand again for the leadership of the Eastern Cape. The province has scheduled its congress for Friday, 24 February, and Saturday.
Bhanga has been the DA’s Eastern Cape leader for two terms.
He intends to make a formal announcement about his candidacy for the deputy federal leadership soon.
“One of the reasons I am availing myself for the position is because the DA needs an organic person. My brand will assist in many ways,” he said.
“The DA does not need someone who went to Grey High School, but someone from Kwazakhele High School.”
DA MP Natasha Mazzone is also standing as one of the deputies, according to a senior party official. Mazzone was the DA’s chief whip in Parliament until changes were made to the party’s caucus.
She was moved to the joint standing committee on intelligence and Siviwe Gwarube replaced her as whip. Nt’sekhe, one of the incumbent deputies, was not yet sure whether she would be standing for election again and said she was still mulling over the idea.
In addition to voting in three deputies, the party has to elect a federal chair. It is likely that Helen Zille will stand again. James Masango will be hoping to be re-elected as her deputy.
The DA Women’s Network, the party’s women’s organisation, has been without a leader since the resignation of Nomafrench Mbombo in 2021. The two DA youth organisations will also have to elect their leadership at the party congress.
Putting up a fight: Rules of engagement
All members of the party standing for election to any office are expected to apply online, or complete the requisite forms, according to the DA’s report focusing on the standards of conduct relating to internal elections.
The party does not allow any nominations from the floor.
The DA also prohibits negative campaigning during internal elections, or attacks on the party or fellow members.
“However, it is accepted that verified and factual information relevant to the candidature of any member standing for election to any office can be appropriately publicised. The use of false information is prohibited.
“The federal constitution expressly prohibits campaigning in any election for office that mobilises or attempts to mobilise discrimination against or opposition to any person on the grounds of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language or birth,” the document reads.
Although the rules condemn inducement and coercion of conference delegates for votes, expenditure up to a limit of of R100 per campaign helper or event attendant is permissible.
“Such amount includes expenditure on food, promotional material, and other items to be used or consumed by third parties. Such an amount is to be reviewed annually by the federal executive in line with inflation,” the rules state.
The DA does not allow candidates to approach donors to contribute funds unless its national fundraising department certifies that the donor is not on the national database of donors.
“No existing donor to the party may be approached by any person or entity to solicit for a donation in cash nor in kind, to any internal party election,” the document reads. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.