The DA's leadership problem

RW Johnson on why John Steenhuisen's "roadkill" remarks were disqualifying, and on the need for a new Popular Front

It has been obvious for some time that the DA has a leadership problem, with John Steenhuisen the de jure leader and Helen Zille the de facto leader. In a sense this is no one’s fault. Zille is smarter, more experienced and something of a workaholic, so it’s pretty well impossible for her not to be the dominant character.

And although the result has been to force Steenhuisen to operate under constraints that no previous DA leader has has had to put up with, he has not complained, publicly at least. But the situation is decidedly awkward.

Disqualification through misogyny

However, the problem suddenly got much larger when Steenhuisen described his ex-wife – on a live podcast – as “roadkill” and “a flat chicken”, remarks accompanied by a great deal of laughter. Several women protested about this obvious misogyny and the Sunday Times named Steenhuisen as its Mampara of the Week for his crass bad taste, pointing out that his ex-wife was the mother of his two children.

But Steenhuisen was no whit abashed, saying he “had thoroughly enjoyed” the podcast and while “the joke may have been in bad taste to some”, all he was being criticised for, he said, was “a bad joke”. Which is to say a joke that’s not that funny.

Actually it wasn’t a joke at all but an ugly insult at the expense of a woman in no position to defend herself. Steenhuisen showed no concern for how his children would feel about hearing their mother thus held up to public scorn and ridicule. Or how his former parents-in-law would feel about seeing their daughter so despicably mis-treated. He was far more concerned to protect his own image, attempting to suggest that somehow the fuss was the media’s fault: “I think it is more telling that the South African media have chosen to focus on one bad joke”.

Enoch Powell warned that one should never trust a politician who lays blame on the media. The media, he pointed out, are simply a fact of political life that every politician knows about from the very outset of his or her career. Politicians who complain about the media are like sailors or farmers complaining about the weather. But in Steenhuisen’s case his criticism of the media was simply an attempt at deflection. He had caused the fuss, the media merely did their job and reported it.

Steenhuisen still didn’t seem to grasp that actually his “joke” was seriously offensive. Instead Steenhuisen tried to evade such questions, arguing that it was more important to “break down barriers and talk to each other as South Africans”.

Facing the dilemma thus created

Personally this placed me in a quandary. I was revolted by the roadkill/flat chicken remarks and no doubt any self-respecting woman feels still more strongly than I do. I’m not suggesting that Steenhuisen is evil or anything as elevated as that. He behaved like a yahoo and, as such, is seriously out of place as leader of the DA.

On the other hand, I have supported the Progs/DP/DA ever since I was a teenager so at the next election I will presumably be facing a DA national list headed by John Steenhuisen.

I realised that I couldn’t vote for a man who behaves so despicably and then refuses even to apologise. The last thing I want is to have such a person representing me. Helen Suzman was my friend and I suspect that she would have felt the same.

Van Zyl Slabbert was also my friend. I can imagine only too well his blistering contempt for any party leader stupid enough to make such offensive remarks on live radio. And Van’s jokes really were funny.

Van had also been through an extremely difficult divorce but I never once heard him make a disrespectful or critical remark about his former wife. As for ugly insults like “roadkill” and “flat chicken”, I can’t imagine any previous DA leader using such terms of their spouse. Even Malema doesn’t talk like that.

So I can’t vote for a list headed by Steenhuisen though I’d happily vote for the DA’s provincial list. I’m not interested in giving my national vote to another party, though I’d give it to Steenhuisen’s ex-wife if I could.

This was not Steenhuisen’s first mis-step – just before the local elections he tried to tell Cape Town’s city councillors that they ought to be building houses on their golf courses. He had to be hurriedly disavowed by the DA’s regional executive. Again, one wonders how on earth he could have been so crass.

Steenhuisen has failed to make much impact either with the public or the media. It is not his fault, of course, that Helen Zille gets more of the limelight. To break through he needed to make some really thought-provoking and arresting speeches. This hasn’t happened and it seems unlikely that it will.

What to do?

But what is the DA to do? South Africa is a very leadership-focused country and every party relies on its leader being more popular than the party and pulling it up. No party can afford a leader who holds it back.

The DA had to get rid of Mmusi Maimane, who did much damage. The DA did itself terrible harm by playing identity politics and continually catapulting into the leadership promising but inexperienced black politicians who were thus guaranteed to fail.

In every case (Ramphele, De Lille, Mazibuko, Maimane and Mashaba) they blamed the DA and campaigned against it, often forming their own parties to do so. The whole miserable experience stems from a huge failure of judgement over a period of years. Maimane was just the culmination of this disastrous error.

Having summarily got rid of Maimane the DA may have to get rid of Steenhuisen equally quickly, for go he clearly must. Unless, however, the party can find a Kennedy-esque younger figure whose charm and intelligence would simply cast Zille into the shade, any successor would face the same problem that Steenhuisen has faced, with his/her oxygen supply severely restricted by the party chairperson.

The need for change

This brings one up against two issues. One is the apparent weakness of the field. I hear endless laments about the lack of talent in the parliamentary DA. If that is indeed so the reason is likely to be the party leadership’s intrusion into the nomination process – in the good old days candidates were chosen by local branches. Usually, they did it better. Jan Steytler, Helen Suzman, Colin Eglin, Van Zyl Slabbert and Tony Leon all emerged that way.

Second, what happened to team spirit? When Van Zyl Slabbert burst onto the scene the DP’s MPs told Colin Eglin they wanted him to stand down as leader to make way for Van. Eglin stood down, served loyally under Van and then served again as leader after him. Now, however, if a DA leader is deposed he or she storms off to found an opposition party. This alone shows that they should not have been promoted in the first place.

The DA can’t remain in this state as it advances towards 2024, potentially a critical election. Ideally it needs to be led by a new Van Zyl Slabbert, a person of charisma and high intelligence who can, if necessary, play a commanding role in a coalition government or help to see the country through a period of no government. These are steep demands. Currently the party is in no shape to meet them.

What is to be done?

Right now the party needs to do two things. First, the threat of an ANC-EFF coalition has to be strongly resisted. The ANC’s decline has given Julius Malema the opening he has long awaited. He has already cosied up to Zuma and the RET faction and now he sees the ANC’s likely need for a coalition partner as giving him the leverage to catapult him first into the cabinet and ultimately into the presidency.

John Steenhuisen has attempted to fend off this threat by warning Malema that the EFF electorate won’t stand for a deal that props up the declining ANC.

This is precisely the wrong approach. Malema has already got his supporters to swallow the far more radical step of the EFF supporting DA-led coalitions. Compared to that getting his supporters to accept an EFF-ANC deal would be easy: it would even be celebrated as re-uniting the African political family. In any case, the idea of Malema taking lessons from Steenhuisen on how to manage the EFF electorate is laughable.

Back in March when Helen Zille was eagerly touting the possibility of a DA-ANC coalition I pointed out that, inter alia, an ANC-EFF coalition was far more likely. And in fact the emerging alliance of EFF and ANC shows every sign of having been carefully prepared.

The ANC has likely already begun to cut in the EFF on its distribution of patronage, doubtless one of Malema’s key requirements.

In return Malema is now backing the ANC’s attempt to overthrow the DA administration in Joburg. This attempt is being carefully orchestrated with the bribery of various minor party politicians: the ANC and EFF are both quite happy with such methods.

If this attempt succeeds doubtless both parties will help themselves to rich pickings from Joburg’s R73 billion budget - and move against other DA administrations elsewhere.

This is a concerted attempt to weaken and hurt the DA as much as possible in the run-up to 2024 and the DA has to fight back with all it’s got. The DA must warn the ANC: “We know exactly what the EFF is about. Malema has been cultivating the RET faction because it stands for exactly the same as he does, a combination of left populism plus bare-faced looting. In effect the EFF is assisting a reverse take-over of the ANC by the RET.

“Malema has been reaching out to the most dubious elements within the ANC. He has backed Gwede Mantashe for the ANC leadership, Mantashe the Minerals minister whose wife, with Gwede’s apparent support, is corruptly pushing to take over a manganese mine. It should not be forgotten that when South Africa’s banks decided to close the Guptas’ accounts, Mantashe summoned them all to Luthuli House in order to put pressure on them. Now he’s keen to build another nuclear reactor, with Russia’s Rosatom a likely partner – the Zuma deal, in other words.

“Be warned, however, that if the ANC commits to an alliance with the EFF, this would be the final step in the perdition of South Africa. It would quickly put the RET back in power and it would soon make the Zuma period look like a model of propriety.

“It would also unleash unbridled racism against many elements of the population. How do you expect Afrikaners to accept rule by a party whose slogan is “Kill the Boer”? How do you expect the Indian community to accept rule by a party guilty of naked anti-Indian racism? How do you expect Coloured people to feel at the sight of the anti-Coloured Mzwanele Manyi being back in a starring role?

“But it’s not just the minorities who are threatened by an ANC-EFF deal. Plenty of Africans are well aware of just how unscrupulous Malema is and just what depths the ANC sank to under Zuma. They don’t want to go back there.

“This threat is so great and so real that it would cause the break-up of South Africa. Some cities and some regions would take one look at such a coalition and opt for secession rather than come under its rule.

“Already the failures of the ANC state have produced strong centrifugal pressures in several regions. But the advent of an ANC-EFF government would create a situation in which breakaway regions or cities had nothing to lose. Trying to make a go of things on their own might be challenging but anything would be better than the future which an ANC-EFF administration promises. Thus an EFF-ANC deal would be a step into a future with no return.”

The need for a popular front

The second step a DA leader needs to take is to stand back from the party fray and help build a wide popular front of all those who want a major democratic change. The DA alone is unlikely to win more than a quarter of the vote but it needs to marshal a wider front representing perhaps 40% of voters.

To do this it would have to invite many of the smaller parties to play a role within that front, as also Songezo Zibi and other independents, together with the ANC’s anti-corruption elements. And, following the model of the UDF, churches, community associations and other constituencies should be invited to join too.

It would be a popular front against corruption, against misrule, to restore law and order and to give people hope again in a better future. And to save South Africa.

In order to articulate such themes, to lead the way and set the tone, a DA leader would need to give a series of very different but authoritative speeches setting out the dilemmas and choices which the country faces.

There would be no room for narrow partisanship, no attack-dog rhetoric. Instead, the stress would have to be on the choices which need to be made to provide a wholly different future, one in which South Africa can be saved – saved from poverty and mass unemployment, saved from looting and saved from despair.

Wanted: an outstanding leader

A DA leader who could give a series of such speeches with real intellectual authority and a real sense of compassion for the many bruised and suffering communities all over South Africa would not only restore hope to many but would inspire the wider front required. That front would not be under the control of the DA or of any other single party. There would have to be genuine sharing and a spirit of generosity, of making sacrifices for the general good.

A DA leader who could do this would position him/herself as a crucial guide into that different future. It is clear that no other party can or will do this.

Either the official Opposition does this or it will not be done. In addition that leader would need to embark on a sort of ecumenical mission, sharing platforms with any and all elements willing to envisage and work for such an alternative future.

The message is that the danger South Africa faces is so dire that even the DA is willing to sacrifice its partisan interest for the greater good. In effect it would be a crusade against an ANC-EFF government and the destruction it would bring. This would maximise support and perhaps even prise loose some of the better elements left in the ANC.

The problem is that of all the Prog/DP/DA leaders perhaps only Van Zyl Slabbert had the ability to give such an intellectual lead and to do it with the zest and humour that would make it people-friendly.

It may be that some other route needs to be taken – using a wider set of talents than any one current leader has. It may even be that one should envisage a new sort of UDF. But time is short: such an initiative is crucial if full advantage is to be taken of the political conjuncture.