Speech by John Steenhuisen MP
Parliamentary Leader of the Official Opposition
28 October 2019
“Values. Vision. Victory.”
Let me begin by thanking you for the opportunity to be here to address the Cape Town Press Club today. I was billed to be addressing you today as the Chief Whip of the Opposition. Little did I know, when I agreed to this engagement those few short weeks ago, what events would unfold in the meantime. Harold Wilson famously quipped that “a week is a long time in politics”. This has been confirmed in the past week where so much has happened so quickly. And it’s to this that I would first like to turn.
Of course, the events of the last few weeks have been tumultuous for our party and I’m not going to insult your intelligence by even attempting to convince you otherwise. The departure of a leader, a chairperson and a metro mayor -- and the manner of their leaving -- dealt a blow to our cause.
But, I must say that I do find the commentariat a little bit over-dramatic in their unseemly haste to sign the political death certificate of the party. Indeed, as Mark Twain said when he read his own obituary in the newspaper: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Memories are short, it seems. It’s not the first time something like this has happened and it probably won’t be the last. Many of you will recall when in 1986 the youthful Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert – the oppositions’ great Afrikaner hope for the PFP breakthrough with Afrikaans voters – suddenly walked off the job leaving the party in turmoil and its future uncertain. Like now, the political obituary writers went to town. Yet in just over a decade its successor in title, the Democratic Party, was to become the official opposition -- having won the support of enough minority voters to overtake the National Party.
It was the values of the organisation, and its principles combined with a determined and unshaken belief in the imperative of the democratic project, that have sustained our party and its predecessors through good times and bad. The same values, principles and determination that steered the party through:
- near annihilation in the 1994 election,
- the walkout by the NNP in 2000,
- the Harksen scandal in 2001, and
- the comings and goings of various personalities.
And that is why the DA, more than ever before, has to focus on being a party that’s big on values and principles and not a party that’s big on personalities. When a party has no discernible big values or principles, or is not rooted in them and unclear of its purpose, it can only but survive on big personalities. Witness what happened to the NNP, a party that had betrayed many of its values and principles for perks and privileges. They collapsed under the weight of the departure of FW De Klerk.
Contrast that with the DA, which despite these recent setbacks, is still the second largest party in the country, the official opposition in parliament, and is a party in government in the Western Cape, Cape Town, Tshwane and Johannesburg, not to mention countless municipalities across the country. We are by far the most diverse party with councilors and activists in all communities, and representatives in every provincial legislature. And that’s the bottom line – none of this has changed! This is why it is essential that the work we have been elected to do by millions of South Africans continues. And why the democratic project of building a non-racial alternative to the ANC is more urgent than ever before.
And that is why I fundamentally disagree with those who say that the DA is not the vehicle for change in South Africa. Quite the contrary, the DA is in fact the only vehicle for change, and our best hope for the future.
But that’s not to say the vehicle doesn’t need some attention. The party’s election review panel, in assessing more than 200 submissions from party members, found that the vehicle had some serious problems and recommended some changes to make it roadworthy again. And this is what all of us who want to build a viable non-racial alternative need to work on.
Let me be clear, Election 2019 was a setback for the party. No party wants to go backwards in support and no party wants to lose seats. I am disappointed in the result, and so are many of us. The result was a setback on our path to power. We must unequivocally dispel this nonsense from some within the party that it was “a winning loss”. Equally, we must stop beating up on our own supporters who have expressed concern at what they see as a slide into populism.
If you look at the parties that grew in the last election, they were characterised by being absolutely clear about who they were, what they were about, and what they were fighting for.
On one side you had the EFF. It didn’t matter whether you were in Polokwane or Pietermaritzburg, the message was clear: this is a radical socialist party fighting for land and jobs. Whether you agree with their policy prescriptions to achieve that is, of course, another matter altogether.
On the other side you had the FF+. It didn’t matter whether you were in Potchefstroom or Paarl, the message was clear: this is a party fighting back for minority rights. And again, whether you think that a retreat into a racial laager is helpful for minorities, is another matter altogether.
The DA, by contrast, stood like a big, blue, wobbly jelly at the centre. With nothing holding us upright, we wobbled to the left and wobbled to the right, buffeted by the political winds and latest populist cause de jour. Now I know that many people may like jelly, but nobody orders it for dessert when they go out for dinner.
Our task in the weeks, months and years before us is clear. We need to find our spine again. We need to re-anchor ourselves to our core values. We must confidently evangelise non-racialism, while maintaining our commitment to redress and reconciliation. We must reconnect with those voters who feel abandoned by us, while winning the votes of South Africans who have never voted for us before.
These are not trade-offs. The choice we face is not either-or.
Philosophically, our choice now must be to fill the vacuum at the non-racial centre of our politics. We must stand up for our values, and we must stand against the racial populism of the left and right.
Strategically, we must work out clearly how to win the support of all voters that share our values -- particularly young people who did not vote at all, and who have become disillusioned with politics as a vehicle for meaningful change.
So, the choice is simple. We can sit back and bemoan the problems, or we can do something to fix it. And we will do well to remember that elections don’t have to be fatal. The recent resurgence of the Liberal Democrats in Britain and the Conservatives in Canada are proof of that. But we have to take some hard realities on board, to return to our values and principles, and to spell out clearly what these are.
The political landscape has shifted
The forces on our left have consolidated and are growing, and their radical agenda presents a clear and present danger to our economy, our democracy and the fabric of our society. We may be double their size, but they almost doubled theirs in the last election. If they do that again we are in trouble!
Equally the forces on our right have gained traction. Their agenda too, of balkanisation, nationalism and laagerism threatens to take our politics back a hundred years.
And where do we stand?
There are three big elephant traps that pose a risk to us if we fall into them:
- Lurch to the right in a knee-jerk reaction to desperately try to win back conservative voters. This will turn us into a fringe party of minorities and reduce our ability to meaningfully and authentically challenge for national government with any credibility.
- Lurch to the left. Some say that to become more palatable as a party we must pander to the left by becoming more socially democratic. This will only reduce us to some diluted version of the governing party – an ANC-lite. It is a fool’s errand that will set us on a race to the bottom over who can provide the biggest welfare state. We will become the socialist party of the equal outcome, rather than the liberal party of the equal shot. A social safety net is of course critical, but the aim must be to get as many people as possible on their own feet, productive and able to support themselves.
- Stand Still. We could adopt a business-as-usual approach – expecting that a few minor adjustments here and there will suffice – misguidedly thinking that if we just wait it out like a modern day Mr. Macawber hoping that “something will turn up”, that our voters will return. This will set us on a path where stagnation and decline will surely await us at the end. Parties that do not change, die!
We must hold the rational centre of politics
Our party, the DA, needs to become an iron fortress that stands firm at the centre – as the bastion of hope and change, offering rational, evidence-based solutions to South Africa’s problems.
We need to make the case better for the centre. We need to set out, with spellbinding clarity, what the DA is and what we are about. Because make no mistake, the centre is where the very best ideas for the next generation of progress and change for our country will come from. We must congregate here and pull millions more into that congregation if we are to ever change this country.
Our party must become that iron fortress, a bastion for what we believe in. I want to share with you today some of the things I believe, and my vision for our party:
One South Africa for All: a party that truly fights for non-racialism. That doesn’t mean being deaf, blind or hardened to the lived reality and inequality that still glaringly exists in South Africa. But we must be a party that compassionately and consistently stands up for fairness, and fights for the rights and protection of all communities and against all forms of discrimination.
But at the same time we recognise that there is a need to redress the consequences of racial discrimination. In his excellent book “Identity” Francis Fukuyama argues strongly that at the heart of rising nationalisms and radicalism lies a fundamental desire for dignity, and that failure to acknowledge this desire, in the context of our time, will leave political movements blind to the future. We must work hard to acknowledge and restore the dignity of South Africans across the spectrum.
An enterprise economy that promotes aspiration: an economy that is inclusive and provides strong, stable growth and in which the focus is on promoting aspiration by building equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.
Understanding that aspiration is only enabled by education. Fixing education is the best economic policy that we can adopt. Our schools are churning out learners who do not have the capacity to compete in the current economy, never mind the economy to come. Unless we overhaul our education system we will never reverse inequality or arrest our economic and social decline and we will never get SA’s jobless 10 million back to work.
Defending the Constitution, the rule of law and good clean governance with all our might, because it is our most powerful weapon in the fight against the countervailing forces of nationalism, nationalisation, socialism and radicalism that occupy our left and right flanks.
Where we govern, we must govern better and in a way that places clear blue water between the lived experience under a DA government as opposed to under an ANC one. Life must get better and we must deliver on what we promise. Bad governance is fundamentally fatal to our brand proposition. It is essential that DA governments really do become the shining beacons on a hill that they are meant to be.
We must also recognise that there is space to put the country first. Surely the time has come for us to be able to reach across the aisle and work together with our political opponents on the things that matter most to South Africans. It’s also frankly not good enough to just speak about how bad things are under the ANC. I want my party to speak far more and with greater passion about how good they can be under the DA.
And that means we have to have a compelling policy offer. I want our party to have the courage to think big again, to be unafraid of the big ideas and to become the party of progressive, cutting edge policy and alternatives that reflect the true potential and promise that our country offers. Policies, programmes and alternatives that can excite South Africans again and give them real hope for a shared, prosperous future.
We have to demonstrate that voting for the DA will lead to a better life for everyone. We must build, grow and show a party that truly represents the dreams, hopes and aspirations of every South African, we must reflect and understand their current realities and we must offer hope for a DA tomorrow. We need to do this by becoming an alternative TO the ANC, and not an alternate ANC, setting clear blue water between them and our DA.
Modern, progressive and compassionate liberalism
There is no better way to demonstrate that than by rooting our offer and grounding our arguments in our liberal values. We must never shy away from resolutely defending and promoting individual liberty underpinned by a bill of rights, freedom of speech and press, the security of private ownership of property, equality before the law and language rights.
But we must also be clear that when we talk about liberalism and liberal values that we don’t slavishly shackle ourselves to John Lockes 17th Century England. This is 21st century Africa and we need a modern, progressive and compassionate liberalism that understands the South African context, the deprivation and the inequality that still exists almost three decades into democracy.
In its excellent case for liberalism on the occasion of its 175th birthday The Economist magazine writes:
“Liberalism has succeeded by serially reinventing itself, while staying true to its four key elements. The first is that society is a place of conflict and that it will and should remain so; in the right political environment, this conflict produces competition and fruitful argument. The second is that society is thus dynamic; it can get better, and liberals should work to bring such improvement about. The third is a distrust of power, particularly concentrated power. The fourth is an insistence, in the face of all power, on equal civic respect for the individual and thus importance of personal, political and property rights”
Colin Eglin, himself a long hauler of the opposition scene and the democratic project, perhaps summed it up best over four decades ago when he stated that our distinctive difference as a party was that we believed that “the individual is the touchstone of value in South Africa”. Of course we all have different identities, we serve different communities, we speak different languages and we worship different Gods.
We must celebrate this broad and great diversity. But, there is an essential difference – and it is crucial to our renewed journey to know this – between group membership and group think.
Identity politics, where we say to our citizens “no matter what you want, what you dream of, what you work for, you will rise collectively or not at all” is the enemy of our cause. In our liberal democratic vision, it is up to individuals to shape their own destinies, choose their own futures, and dream their great dreams. Trumping the community or the group over the individual is the direction of nationalists, socialists and fascists. It leads to a dead end of suffering and despair.
Liberalism, by definition, requires that we fight poverty and unemployment. How can anyone be free unless they have the wherewithal to live a life they value? This is the DA’s purpose: to promote substantive freedom by ensuring every person has the right, space and wherewithal to live a life they value. Thus, our liberal values compel us to transcend South Africa’s history of discrimination, division and inequality that are the legacy of racial oppression in our country.
Let me be clear. No individual can truly claim to be a liberal if they do not support the fight against poverty.
If we ground ourselves in our values and if we focus with determination, passion and vigor on succeeding in our mission, then nothing and nobody can stop us from building a new majority in South Africa. A new majority where our children are learning, where our neighborhoods are safe, where our economy is growing and where jobs and skills are being created and homes are being built.
I believe that a modern, progressive and compassionate liberalism – and the bright hope it offers for progress and renewal – is right for our party, right for our time, and right for our country.
The problem with South Africa is it wants a short cut – always. But there are no shortcuts in life really. Ultimately, we have to take the hard yards of fixing our education system, freeing up our labour market to get more people working, and shifting public money from consumption spending on a huge public sector to investment spending on the things our economy needs to grow: water, energy, transport and communications.
And so, in these new political times we will be challenged and we will be tested. But by holding true to our values we have made it this far, and together we can face our future with confidence. Whether it’s in parliament, our legislatures, our councils or in our constituencies, the message from DA public representatives must be: when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Our party’s organisational review, along with the shake-up that has resulted from it, is not a mortal blow to the DA, as so many commentators have tried to argue. On the contrary, it is a rare opportunity to regroup, reassess our mission and recommit to the fight for a better South Africa.
Has this disrupted our progress as a party? Of course it has. But it is a disruption that will prove to be critical to the long-term future of the DA and the future of our country.
As a party, we were drifting off the road and we needed to be shaken awake. We needed to rediscover what we stood for. We needed to be reminded of the danger of becoming a weathervane at a time when our country desperately needs signposts.
Now we know where we left the path, and how we can return to it.
In the last few days I have read many pieces in support of a rejuvenated and recommitted DA, saying that South Africa needs a strong opposition. And I agree with this. No other party, over the past two decades, could have served its country better as an opposition. No other party could have had a bigger impact on the lives of ordinary people without being in national government.
Our country needs such a strong opposition, and that can only be the DA. But while we will do this job with the utmost dedication, the DA is more than just an opposition party. We are also a national government in waiting. We are the alternative to the failed ANC. We are the party that can reunite a fractured society and rebuild a shattered economy.
If South Africa is to succeed, and if the people of this country are to taste the freedom they have been waiting for since the dawn of our democracy, it will be because of the values and the vision of the Democratic Alliance.
That is why I have spent the last few days considering the future of the party I love so much. I believe that our best days are still before us, and that our collective future is one of hope and prosperity, underpinned by our values and principles which will guide the Democratic Alliance through these trying times.
It is for these reasons that I have decided to avail myself for the position of DA Interim Leader and ultimately, the Federal Leader in April 2020.
With the collective, undying spirit of our hard working public representatives and the unwavering loyal support from our army of activists, I will look to chart a new way forward for the Democratic Alliance, no matter how hard and trying things may get. Because in the end, I draw my strength and inspiration from these incredible people.
If elected, I commit to dedicating every fibre of my being to ensuring the best possible outcome for the party in the local elections and ensuring the survival of the democratic project, which is so much bigger and more vital than personalities.
In these trying days the words of Tennyson are apt, and must guide us:
“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”