'The turbulence is over' — DA's John Steenhuisen
DA leadership hopeful John Steenhuisen says the party is once again ready to take off after internal difficulties that were highlighted by an independent review after last year's dismal election performance.
“The DA is once again ready for take-off. We have repaired the holes in our fuselage. We have installed powerful new jet engines. And our passengers are excited for the journey that lies ahead.
“That is why I had faith in you and the party to have this congress so we can finish what we started. The turbulence is over, and the next leg of our journey has begun.
“It is time to open the throttle and take to the skies,” said Steenhuisen.
He was delivering his final speech to delegates at the DA's congress before they voted for the party's new leadership on Saturday.
Steenhuisen is a front-runner for the DA federal leader position and has been at the helm as interim leader since Mmusi Maimane's departure a year ago.
In his candidate speech, he reflected on the hurdles the party has had to clear over the past year since it adopted a review report “that set out the hard truths about what we needed to do to fix our party”.
“When I put my hand up for the position of interim leader a year ago, I did so because I care deeply for the party I have served for over 22 years. I knew very well that our engines were sputtering and that our wings had been clipped,” he said.
Steenhuisen said instead of threatening to leave the party and criticising it in the media, he worked to rebuild its image.
In the wake of last year's general election, then DA leader Maimane asked Ryan Coetzee to chair an independent review into the party’s election performance and broader circumstances.
The report which was made public in October 2019 found that an overwhelming view of those who made submissions or with whom the panel held discussions was that Maimane, while immensely talented, committed to the cause, hardworking and widely liked, could be indecisive, inconsistent and conflict averse and that this had led to:
- A lack of clarity about the party’s vision and direction;
- Confusion about the party’s position on key issues;
- The erosion of the party’s unity of purpose;
- Deep divisions within the national caucus;
- A breakdown in trust between the leader and some of the party’s structures;
- A failure to produce a credible policy platform; and
- A general erosion of discipline across the party.
Shortly after the report was released, Maimane stepped down as DA leader and eventually left the party.
Reflecting on the period since the publishing of the review report, Steenhuisen said the past 12 months had been tougher than they could have imagined but that the past year had also proven the fundamental strength of the party.
“Under my leadership, we have not shirked away from the challenge that confronted us. Instead, we did what all truly great organisations do in difficult times: we rose to the occasion.
“When the going got tough, I made sure that the DA got going,” he said.
Steenhuisen said the single most important fix the party has made over the past year was the renewed focus on activism, branches and campaigning, saying he believed that reigniting the party's activist base would be key to winning power from the ANC in 2024.
“When I first joined the DA as a member of my local branch in Durban back in 1998, I spent my days knocking on doors talking to people. It was then that I realised the power of true activism,” he said.
Committed activists were the secret ingredient behind the DA's rise from a 1% party to become the official opposition in 1999, he said. Times may have changed, but there is no substitute for face-to-face communication with voters, said Steenhuisen.
Gone are the days of investing more in buying smart tablets than on training activists, treating activists like little more than survey workers and the days of Facebook politicians taking credit for the hard work of activists, said Steenhuisen.
“And gone are the days of people being parachuted into positions at the expense of hardworking members,” he added.
Steenhuisen also promised to restore discipline including message discipline.
“We must stop talking only to ourselves and we must stop talking to the media about our internal party matters.
“From now on, every single DA member must focus on the voters. All of them.
“Every South African deserves to know our vision for the country, and how we plan to rescue it from the criminal clique in power,” he said.