John Steenhuisen MP acceptance speech to the Democratic Alliance Federal Council on his election as Interim Federal Leader, 17 November 2019
My fellow Democrats,
I stand before your today humbled by the faith you have placed in me to lead the Democratic Alliance through this critical period. It is my greatest honour to serve as your interim Federal Leader, and I assure you that I will do so with every ounce of energy I can muster.
I know what is expected of me in this role. I know the personal sacrifices that are required in this job. I also know that leading the DA comes with an extraordinary level of scrutiny and criticism. I am ready for this.
I have never been scared of hard work, and I have never backed down from a challenge.
But it is not just me who has to step up to the plate. We, as a party, are all embarking on this new chapter together. Each and every one of us has to be up for the fight, because the next year and a half will require an extraordinary effort.
If we want to be in a strong position by the 2021 local government elections, then we will have to make our recovery from the 2019 national elections swift and decisive.
This is not for our own sake but for the sake of our country. Recently I’ve heard people say that South Africa needs a miracle to make it through these hard times we find ourselves in.
But that’s not true. We don’t need a miracle. We simply need people in leadership who genuinely care for the people they serve, and who care about the important jobs they do.
This party is full of people like that. I know, from more than two decades in the DA, that this is a party driven by a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the people we serve.
That’s why it’s hard to witness the suffering of poor South Africans day in and day out. I have seen, first-hand, some of the worst poverty and neglect in our country, and it is impossible to walk away from those scenes without being deeply affected.
I have seen hungry children in rural KZN who have no choice but to accept that their next proper meal will only come on the Monday at school.
I have met parents who live in fear, every day, for the safety of their children. A woman in Helenvale in the Eastern Cape told me how they eat their meals under the table at night to avoid stray bullets from gangs in the area. She has already lost three of her children to gang violence.
These are stories that stay with you long after you’ve said goodbye. And this is what we’re fighting to change.
The DA is not in a fight over ideology or a fight for power. Our fight is to push back against the tide of poverty that has engulfed the lives of so many men, women and children in our country.
Our fight is for the prosperity and the dignity of millions of South Africans who are still waiting for their freedom.
I know that the DA has both the people and the ideas to win this fight. That’s why it is critical that we waste no time in turning our setback into a comeback.
I don’t need to tell you that 2019 has been a tough year for the DA. The results in May were a blow to our project, and the disruption to our senior leadership this past month has caused much uncertainty and upheaval throughout our structures.
But I also know – and I suspect you will agree with me – that this internal shake-up has been the wake-up that our party desperately needed. Anyone who thinks we could continue as before and hope for a different outcome is not living in the real world.
History will one day record these events not as the crisis that sank the DA, as our obituary writers love to speculate, but as the moment we brought our party back on the road to success.
Without the setback at the ballot box, and without the brutal honesty of our party’s internal review, we wouldn’t have embarked on this mission of renewal.
We wouldn’t have seen the urgency of rediscovering our values and reconnecting with the electorate. Of winning back those whose trust we lost, and of winning the hearts of those who’ve never voted for us before.
We would have simply continued to drift further away from who we are.
Winston Churchill once said: “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” Well, I can tell you we have the wind in our faces right now. This is indeed a challenging time for the DA.
But I also know that we will never have a better opportunity to climb on this wind. This is our chance to reset the DA and to let South Africans know who we are and what we stand for. And that is why the policy conference that we are heading to earlier next year is so important because this will set out a clear marker about who and what we are.
Before we set off on this path, I want you to know exactly what you can expect from me as leader.
For starters, I will shoot straight. I will not have different conversations with different people. My views will be consistent, and you will always know where you stand with me.
My door will be open to you at all times. And you should always call me by my first name, John. We are colleagues and we are public servants. We are not a party of leader worship and deferential titles.
The DA is about big principles, not big personalities.
If you can’t come and see me face to face, then please pick up the phone and speak your mind freely and frankly about any issues you might have. The days of reading about each other in the Sunday Times are over. Our project is far too important for such distractions.
We must also be a party built on organic authenticity. There are no shortcuts in this and we cannot fake it. We need to put down genuine roots in every community, running campaigns that matter the most to voters, drive issues and speak to a clear alternative or else we will have no hope of winning hearts there.
Members and activists, and the branches they form, must lie at the very core of the Democratic Alliance. These structures, if they work properly, are the umbilical cord that connects our party to communities. They are critical in sustaining our growth and spreading our message.
Along with the establishment of branches, we must redouble our efforts when it comes to recruiting and training activists, and making them real stakeholders in the DA. We need to empower them with the DA’s vision for South Africa, and this has to be set out in a way that anyone can relate to.
Our vision for South Africa will only resonate if people trust us. This is not something than can be built overnight – it takes hard work. But I know we’re a party that’s not afraid to work.
Then the DA must be a party that defines itself in government. We need to govern in our own image, and not that of the ANC. We cannot slip-stream the ANC and remain locked into their flawed model.
We have to reimagine and reinvent government in the DA’s image.
First and foremost DA governments must be compassionate. They must care deeply for the communities they serve, because this compassion will always reflect in how we deliver.
Our governments are where we can set ourselves apart. The “DA difference” can’t just be an empty slogan – there has to be a fundamental difference in the lived experience where we govern.
This has to be so unequivocal and so consistent that people cannot help but talk about it.
Every single day, our question where we govern must be: What have I done today to make people’s lives better?
If we do this right – if every single DA-run city or town becomes an island of hope in a sea of despair – then these governments will be our springboard to even greater success. Because the authentic word-of mouth of residents is worth ten times our own communication efforts.
I will make it my personal mission to drive this message through our governments. I want each of these towns, metros and provinces to know that serving as a DA government is not like any other government. It demands exceptional standards.
I will soon be meeting with our teams in government across the country to talk them through what I expect from them, and to let them know I will be watching them.
The DA has to be the party that delivers, always.
But importantly, the DA also has to be a party grounded in values, and not one led by whatever happens to be the populist cause of the day. Just because we’re at the centre of our political landscape, doesn’t mean we must try to be everything to everyone.
The DA must be a fixed and steadfast signpost that South Africans can depend on, and not a weathervane spinning this way and that in the ever-changing wind.
Our opponents – the racial nationalists who flank us on either side – have it far easier than we do. When you’re defined and driven by race, everyone who doesn’t look like you and speak like you is the enemy. Yours is then a simple message based on hate, fear and mistrust.
But for us it’s much harder. We’re a liberal party, where the freedoms and aspirations of the individual trumps the group every time. We will never turn to the cheap, divisive politics that drive people back into racial corners.
And we’re also a party of incredible diversity. You can see this in our public representatives, in our leadership and in our voters. We’re the only party that can say this.
Of all the major parties, we’re the only one fighting for a truly non-racial South Africa, where real equality of opportunity will mean we won’t have to try and engineer equality of outcome.
But the DA is also a party that believes that the wrongs of the past must be corrected through targeted redress measures.
Apartheid was a brutal and unjust system that continues to haunt the lives of millions of South Africans two and a half decades after it came to an end. Those who still suffer the effects of past discrimination need to benefit from redress.
But we don’t need to resort to crude racial classification to do so. We can target redress policies directly at the poorest in our society, almost all of whom are black.
The fact is, 25 years of race-based redress policies have made things far worse for those still locked out of the economy. It is crucial that redress actually improves the lives of poor South Africans, rather than sounding good but keeping people excluded while enriching the elite.
It is spurious to suggest that only race-based policies can lift people out of poverty. And it is equally spurious to suggest that any opposition to race-based policies somehow implies that race does not matter.
This could not be further from the truth. Of course race matters in South Africa. But the best way, by far, to correct past wrongs is to target the poverty itself, and not the race.
This is something we agreed to in our last Federal Council meeting, when we unanimously adopted the report on our internal review. It is important that we remain guided by our values.
Fellow Democrats, if we want to build a political home for all South Africans, regardless of race, religion or language, it has to be on a foundation of values and a vision for our country that resonates with ordinary South Africans.
We must anchor ourselves very firmly to these values. We must be absolutely clear and consistent about who we are and what we stand for.
This means proudly claiming our liberalism and defending individual liberties such as freedom of speech, the right to own property and equality before the law.
But if liberalism is about individual freedoms, then our number one priority is to fight for the substantive freedom of all South Africans. Because you cannot live a life you value if you are hungry, cold or suffering in any way.
This is why the fight against poverty has to lie at the very heart of everything we do.
There is only one real enemy in this country, and that is poverty. If we could focus all our energy on defeating this one enemy, we could be the greatest nation in the world.
The DA I lead will not waver in this. We will pursue this goal of fighting poverty wherever we are.
We will do so in opposition.
We will do so in government.
We will do so wherever we have a branch or a ward councillor or an activist.
We will carry on fighting to improve people’s lives until the results are undeniable and they have no choice but to talk about us.
This will take time, because there are no shortcuts when it comes to building trust. But eventually we will have touched the lives of millions of people, and we will have put down strong roots in every community in the country.
And when we do, ours will be a story that cannot be ignored.
That is my vision for the DA – a party rebuilt through organic authenticity.
A party whose actions speak far louder than its words.
A party whose achievements in government say it all.
A party with values as strong and immovable as bedrock.
I am asking every one of you to commit to this vision too. If we all agree on what we’re fighting for, then whatever other differences we might have becomes irrelevant.
When we walk out of this room today, we walk out united.
Don’t be afraid of these turbulent times. Change is never entirely comfortable. But that headwind you feel in your face, that is the breeze that will lift our kite higher than it has ever flown before.
And finally, I want you to rest well over this festive season, because when you return in January, there will be little respite. 2020 is going to be a big year for the DA. I know it.