DA experiment

Douglas Gibson writes on the opposition's upcoming virtual congress

Many aspects of life have changed since the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. One of these is the holding of meetings and conferences. Many of us have had to become used to attending Zoom virtual meetings, enabling some semblance of normal life and business to continue with dozens and sometimes hundreds of people being able to join in. Because of the huge savings in travelling time, travelling cost, catering and hotel costs, many organisers of conferences may never return to the old way of doing things.

Major political parties like the ANC and the DA customarily hold congresses every couple of years, attended by several thousand delegates, costing the party immense amounts of money, running to millions of Rand. This year is different.

The DA will be holding its Federal Congress from 31 October to 1 November and the party describes it as “South Africa’s largest ever virtual Congress.” It will be attended by 2000 delegates, many on line, but many others from remote collection points. Each delegate will be sent a secret code that will enable them to dial in, to participate and to cast a secret ballot. A “dry-run” was held a week ago, attended by nearly 1000 delegates, the purpose of which was to ensure that all the systems operated flawlessly and where there were problems, to resolve those immediately and well before the actual congress.

Unlike many other political parties, the DA believes in open elections. Contrast this, for example, with Herman Mashaba’s new party where he appoints everyone from the top down. Many observers were surprised that the talented and dynamic interim DA leader, John Steenhuisen, who became a national political figure during his term as chief whip of the opposition in Parliament, is being opposed by a young provincial MPL from Kwa-Zulu Natal, MbaliNtuli. Something like that would be unthinkable in the ANC. Imagine if a virtually unknown provincial politician had the guts to challenge Cyril Ramaphosa for the leadership of the ANC.

In the DA, Ntuli’s candidature is not overly remarkable. The party likes feisty, young people with charisma and ideas, not afraid to try to map out a future for the DA and the country. It would be a major surprise if she won. The fact is that she is not qualified to lead the opposition and go toe to toe with the president and members of the cabinet. She has not served one day in parliament and is not even a regional or provincial leader but the mere fact of her standing for office has stretched Steenhuisen and ensured that he has travelled throughout the country addressing formations of the DA.

After a somewhat rocky start and a few mis-steps that alienated some, Ntuli has fought a good campaign and won a lot of support. There is no reason why she should not be a significant contender to succeed Steenhuisen in a few years’ time. If the miracle happens and she becomes the leader now, she will be entitled to the loyalty and the support of all in the DA.

The joint presiding officers for the election at the Congress, Greg Krumbock, MP and Desiree van der Walt, MP appear confident that the whole process will work properly and fairly, ensuring an election that meets the highest standards of democracy. South Africans will watch with interest to see if this big experiment of a virtual congress is a success.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is: douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com.

This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.