Why I am supporting John Steenhuisen

Douglas Gibson says the DA leader deserves a second term, after stabilising the party

The Democratic Alliance (DA) will hold its Federal Congress early next month. One of the important items of business will be the election of the Federal Leader of the DA.

There are two candidates: John Steenhuisen, the current Leader of the Opposition in South Africa, who is seeking a second term; and Dr Mpho Phalatse, the recently deposed DA mayor of Johannesburg.

I will be supporting Steenhuisen for several reasons, two of the most important of which are that he deserves a second term because of his excellent performance in stabilising the DA after the departure of Mmusi Maimane and because he has managed to increase its support among voters of all races.

He is a thoroughly nice guy with no airs and graces – he is the sort of chap voters would feel comfortable enjoying with him a beer and a joke. He is a well-known figure in our country with a compelling record of leadership at local government level; in Provincial Government in Kwa-Zulu Natal; as a highly successful Opposition Chief Whip in Parliament; and as a skilled and experienced debater and leader of a caucus of over a hundred MPs, a similar number of MPLs, several thousand town and city councillors, tens of thousands of members and around 3 million supporters. Above all, he has demonstrated in good times and bad that he has staying power, the essential for political success. John will be around in the DA, win, lose, or draw, and will not in a month or a year be looking for an excuse to poor-mouth the party before leaving in a huff.

I am a fan of Mpho Phalatse. I served on the Selection Panel that nominated her as the DA candidate for mayor of Johannesburg. She is a highly educated medical specialist, very intelligent, and an impressive public speaker both off-the-cuff and after careful preparation. She also has a great deal of charm, is always beautifully turned out, and if I may say so, is a glamorous and attractive person. She was a credit to the citizens of Johannesburg and to the DA, which made her the mayor. She also previously had a successful term as a member of DA Mayor Herman Mashaba's Mayoral Committee.

The DA is fortunate indeed in having two candidates of this calibre.

The Federal Congress, with probably somewhere in the region of 2000 delegates, at least two-thirds of whom, reflecting the membership and support base of the party, will be black.

I predict that John Steenhuisen will win by a very handsome majority, perhaps even more than against his last opponent, Mbali Ntuli, a young, attractive candidate with some base in KZN, but virtually unknown elsewhere in our country, whom he beat with 79% of the vote. She proved she had no staying power and soon wandered off into the wilderness, now heard only occasionally on Twitter.

Mpho Phalatse’s campaign team has not served her well to date. Because she is relatively new in the DA, she seems not to fully understand the ethos of the party.

It is a mistake to attack Steenhuisen and state that people will not vote for the DA if he is the leader in 2024. This is demonstrably untrue. She became the mayor under his leadership and one can only look at the many by-election results since then and the polls that show a significant increase in DA support. Statements like that damage the DA and do not advance her candidacy with loyal DA members who will elect the leader.

She referred also to a "climate of fear" in the party that prevented members from coming out and declaring their support for her. This is nonsense. I have been working for the DA and its predecessors since 1975 and one of the outstanding and most attractive characteristics of the party is and has always been the freedom of speech within the branches and the organisation. All policies and leaders can be - and need to be – criticised, although we prefer that to happen in committee, rather than be blasted out in public, doing the party damage in the process.

These campaigning mistakes might not be fatal, but members far prefer clear plans to promote the values and policies, and principles and extend the reach of the DA, instead of launching attacks aimed at destroying leaders, aspirants, and office bearers.

Delegates will also be keenly aware that a person with Mpho's impressive record may not be quite ready to walk into Parliament for the first time as the Leader of the Opposition and potentially the leader of a new coalition government for our country within 12 months.

Although her profile has been raised considerably, as recently as 16 months ago very few Johannesburgers had heard of her, and voters countrywide certainly did not know her.

My advice to Mpho is to follow one of two courses: either resolve to stay a city councillor until the 2024 election, serve the voters of the city faithfully while creating the strong, effective, opposition the ANC/EFF/PA/Cope so badly needs as the DA and its partners put together a stronger, more principled coalition ready to govern.

The other alternative is to reach a loyalty agreement with Steenhuisen, either before or after the DA congress in terms of which the winner of the DA leadership will appoint the loser to an important portfolio in Parliament. If, as seems likely, Mpho is the loser, she should accept the verdict of the Congress with a smile and a determination to develop the experience and acquire the skills necessary to persuade DA members that she is a definite prospect for leadership in the future, not based on race or gender but based on competence, loyalty and staying power. She owes it to South Africa and to herself not to waste her considerable talents but to develop them and use them to help strengthen the DA and create a new future for the beloved country.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His email address is [email protected] and his website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

This article first appeared on News24.com.