Steenhuisen says 'big, blue, wobbly jelly' DA needs to find its spine again

28 October 2019 - 18:46 By ANDISIWE MAKINANA
John Steenhuisen addresses the Cape Town Press Club on Monday.
John Steenhuisen addresses the Cape Town Press Club on Monday.
Image: Sunday Times/Esa Alexander

Newly elected DA parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen has urged party supporters and South Africans not to judge him based on the colour of his skin but on his work.

“I can't change my skin colour. I didn't get to press a button on my way out to choose and self identify what colour I came out in. But what I can do is use every fibre of my being to change what I think is wrong with South Africa and to work very hard to do it,” said Steenhuisen, addressing the Cape Town Press Club at Newlands on Monday.

“We have to break this narrative in South Africa that you have to look a certain way or speak a certain way to represent the needs of other people. My plea is to judge me on what I can do and what I offer and what these hands are willing to do in the service of this country. That's all I can bring to the table."

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He was responding to a question about the perception of the DA being a party for white South Africans and how many perceived developments of the past two weeks as a significant shift towards the right wing. He was asked about the effect of these developments on party members who were not white and how he would communicate them with the larger constituency.

Steenhuisen said this perception was not borne out by reality, as if one looked at the DA, eight of its nine provincial leaders were black, as were its two spokespeople, and that it had a black leader until recently. He said its parliamentary and council caucuses were also the most racially diverse.

Steenhuisen used the event to announce his intention to run for the position of DA leader, left vacant by the resignation last week of Mmusi Maimane. “I have decided to avail myself for the position of DA interim leader and ultimately the federal leader in April 2020,” he said to loud applause from the mainly white crowd.

“If elected, I commit to dedicating every fibre of my being to ensuring the best possible outcome for the party in the local elections and ensuring the survival of the democratic project, which is so much bigger and more vital than personalities,” he said - clearly already in election mode about 20 months before the next local government elections.

Reflecting on the May 8 general elections, he acknowledged that the outcome was a setback for the DA as no party wanted to lose support or seats.

“I am disappointed in the result - and so are many of us. The result was a setback on our path to power. We must unequivocally dispel this nonsense from some within the party that it was 'a winning loss'. Equally, we must stop beating up on our own supporters, who have expressed concern at what they see as a slide into populism,” he said.

Steenhuisen noted that two parties that grew in the last election – the EFF and the FF Plus - were characterised by being absolutely clear about who they were, what they were about and what they were fighting for.

“On one side you had the EFF. It didn’t matter whether you were in Polokwane or Pietermaritzburg, the message was clear: this is a radical socialist party fighting for land.

“On the other side you had the FF+. It didn’t matter whether you were in Potchefstroom or Paarl, the message was clear: this is a party fighting back for minority rights ... Whether you think that a retreat into a racial laager is helpful for minorities is another matter altogether.

“The DA, by contrast, stood like a big, blue, wobbly jelly at the centre,” he said to gasps in the room.

“With nothing holding us upright, we wobbled to the left and wobbled to the right, buffeted by the political winds and latest populist cause de jour. Now I know that many people may like jelly, but nobody orders it for dessert when they go out for dinner,” he added.

He said the party's task in the coming weeks and months was to find its spine again. “We need to re-anchor ourselves to our core values. We must confidently evangelise non-racialism, while maintaining our commitment to redress and reconciliation. We must reconnect with those voters who feel abandoned by us, while winning the votes of South Africans who have never voted for us before.”

Steenhuisen indicated that the DA was willing to continue being part of the coalition governments with which it governed a few municipalities, especially the two big metros in Gauteng.

He said in the short term, no decision had been made to exit any coalition, while in the long term, the party resolved to conduct market research into what the public perception of those coalitions were and to assess how they were working out before going back to the federal council to make an evidence-based call on whether to continue in them or not.

Steenhuisen also revealed that Funzela Ngobeni was the front-runner to replace Herman Mashaba as the mayor of Johannesburg. Ngobeni is MMC for finance and leader of executive business in the council. His selection would ensure continuity there, said Steenhuisen.

On working with Helen Zille, Steenhuisen said he had come a long way with the former Western Cape premier. He revealed that they had previously clashed and not spoken to each other for extended periods of time.

“I have fundamentally disagreed with her - most notably on the tweet, to be honest. I felt that the platform to make it is not Twitter and as the report found, it did do some harm to the election prospects of the DA.

“That being said, what people are missing is that Helen Zille got elected in a four-way contest by a body of federal council - 155 members, a far majority of whom are non-white South Africans. She didn't elect herself. She won quite convincingly a four-way race. We respect a democratic outcome and she must be given space and opportunity.”

He said while people had differing views on whether Zille would stay in her lane, he was looking forward to pointing out the yellow lines to her from time to time.

“But I think at the moment our priority is to stop this political hara-kiri that’s going on in the DA - tearing each other apart in full public glare and pulling out the entrails to show everybody,” he added.