Is John Steenhuisen fit for purpose?

David Bullard provides his assessment of the DA's new interim and parliamentary leader


In June last year I received a direct message on my Twitter account from the then DA chief whip John Steenhuisen. It read as follows:

“Dear Mr Bullard, please forgive me for being so forward, it would be an honour to be “out to lunch” with you Sir. Please let me know whether you will be amenable and when you will be in C.T. or environs soon so I may arrange. Kind regards John Steenhuisen”

I swiftly forgave young Steenhuisen for being so forward and told him to dispense with the courteous formalities. When the chief whip of the official opposition turns out to be a fan of the original “Out to Lunch” column that appeared for 14 years in The Sunday Times it tends to give the flagging ego a much needed boost. When he is even prepared to risk being seen in a public place with the man who set the ball rolling for contrived “racist” sackings back in 2008 then who could possibly refuse?

We eventually settled on Avontuur restaurant near Somerset West and John brought along another friend (the designated driver) who had also been a fan of the column in its heyday.


You never know quite what to expect when a senior politician wants to have lunch with you. Clearly my sphere of influence is much less than it was back in the 2000’s. I hadn’t even revived the Out to Lunch column on Politicsweb at that stage so I wasn’t going to be much use when it came to promoting the DA, if that was indeed what he wanted.

Was the conversation going to be awkward? Was I actually expected to know something about South African politics and make intelligent conversation? Was the fact that I am 23 years older than him going to prove a barrier to a potential friendship? Had he even heard of Led Zeppelin?

Avontuur is a regular haunt of mine (the signature duck Van Der Hum is sublime) and they had placed us at a table next to the log fire on this chilly July day. After formal pleasantries we got down to the serious business of ordering wine and three portions of duck. The conversation went from the state of the nation to the economy to the infighting within the DA to what we were watching on Netflix and who some of the best comedians were (no South African contenders I’m afraid). By the end of the lunch it was if we’d known each other for years so we agreed on a replay with me hosting the next time.

The replay happened at the Stellenbosch Flying Club in December where we sat at wooden picnic tables next to the runway. I had also invited two other guests, one a very prominent wine producer who bought along a few special bottles and the other a local businessman. The lunch was festive and since we were sitting outside we were able to enjoy a good cigar after.

John had kindly bought me a small box of cigars from Cuba but on this occasion it was my turn to provide the smokes which, if memory serves, were Partagas Serie D No 4 robustos. Not too shabby. When lunch was over and John and his friend had left for Cape Town my two other guests couldn’t stop enthusing about the man. Even the staff at the Flying Club commented on his lack of pretension. No body guards, no blue light escort and no attitude of entitlement.

On parting John promised to invite me the state of the nation address the following February. I assumed he might forget all about it but sure enough an invitation turned up and there I was, dressed in my only suit on probably the hottest day of the year, hobnobbing with the great and good in Parliament.

So where’s this all leading to? Well, I don’t suppose one can form a perfect judgement of a man based on two lunches and a SONA but my overwhelming impression of Steenhuisen is that he is a man of great integrity and is sufficiently sharp witted and well informed to be an ideal leader of the opposition. Unlike some members of his party he is refreshingly unpretentious and what you see is what you get.

However, the thing that struck me most over our two lunches is that he is passionate about this country and wants it to succeed. He also believes that it can succeed which is why I was delighted to read this week in Business Day that he wants to put a stop the one upmanship antics in parliament and work constructively with the ANC to find solutions to the country’s growing woes. As he points out, the two parties won’t agree on everything but there are many areas of common interest. To quote BizDay:

“He said parliament needed to rally behind policies that promoted economic growth as this was the only way to tackle poverty, inequality, unemployment and debt. “If what we do inside the House does not contribute to this growth, then we’re doing the wrong thing,” he said and the DA would oppose this.”

I rather doubt whether the EFF would have the guts to make such a statement but it looks as though the leadership of that bunch of bandits may be rather busy with defence lawyers before too long.

Smart and savvy though he undoubtedly is, even John can make the occasional blunder and I’m not sure describing the Institute of Race Relations as “immature and unhelpful” was a good move. The track record of the IRR and the people it employs suggest that it is anything but “immature” and helpfulness is in the eye of the beholder perhaps. But let’s put that comment down to the stress of the new job and hope the DA can work with the IRR as well as the ANC. After all, he has just backed former IRR employee Gwen Ngwenya as DA head of policy.

I suspect that he’s going to be rather too busy to have lunch with “disgraced” columnists in the future but if you do have a day free John let me know. I’ve still got some good cigars to share.