By Greg Nicolson
The DA’s decision to limit public campaigning and hold no televised debates ahead of its federal congress might limit the risk of broadcasting internal divisions, but raises questions about the party’s values — and almost ensures the election of the interim leader.
DA leadership candidates John Steenhuisen and Mbali Ntuli will face off in two virtual debates ahead of the party’s federal congress next weekend, but neither will be publicly broadcast after the party took a decision in September to prohibit public campaigning.
The party ban on public campaigns in the media has likely cemented what was already an almost-certain victory for Steenhuisen, elected interim leader after Mmusi Maimane’s resignation, and has raised questions about its commitment to transparency, which could further dent the DA’s public image.
On the surface, Steenhuisen and Ntuli, a former DA Youth leader and KwaZulu-Natal MPL, employed radically different strategies in their campaigns. Steenhuisen largely kept his campaign in-house while Ntuli took the race public, significantly building her profile by courting media attention, challenging her opponent to a series of public debates and openly speaking about party divisions.
But, as interim leader, Steenhuisen is the face and voice of the DA. He issues press statements slamming President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC. The statements refer to him as “leader” rather than “interim leader”. During the harsher levels of the Covid-19 lockdown, he hosted his own online YouTube show, CoronaCast.
A number of provincial DA leaders have already endorsed Steenhuisen and the party’s current leaders, many of whom also will have to contest their positions, appeared firmly in control at the DA’s recent policy conference. Many of those leaders appear to back Steenhuisen.
Ntuli has publicly clashed with federal council chairperson Helen Zille, whom political analyst Steven Friedman has called the DA’s “probable leader, if not in title”.
To stand a chance, Ntuli needed to take the contest public. She challenged Steenhuisen to four televised debates, saying the party’s internal elections mattered for public elections.
Ntuli planned to hold an online public town hall meeting on Thursday, which she cancelled after the party’s presiding officers said it should be limited to DA members.
“It would be a point of significant regression were it to be that a liberal party, especially those who wish to lead one, determined that their ideology and internal culture was so fragile and weak that it could not withstand the scrutiny of a public debate process when electing their most public representatives,” she explained.
“We cannot opine about the need for openness and transparency, but then deny it when it comes to the very engine which drives the party and expands our ideological resonance in the population.”
Steenhuisen, who had much to lose and little to gain from a public debate and reportedly feared that his opponent would focus on issues of race, appeared to favour keeping the contest internal.
“While it might be popular with commentators and Twitter to attack your own party, I have chosen to rather be forthright with you in these meetings,” Steenhuisen wrote to party members, likely a reference to Ntuli’s public comments attacking the DA’s “insider and outsider clique”.
Despite holding a public debate between party leadership candidates Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James in 2015, the DA has emphasised that the current contest is an internal matter. The DA has been undergoing a process of reform since Maimane and other leaders resigned, often questioning the party’s commitment to transformation.
Public debates could further splinter the party and dent its public image ahead of the 2021 local government elections.
“This is a matter for the party to decide. It’s not necessarily a matter for the broader South Africa to decide on,” said political analyst David Silke.
He added: “I think that the party has missed an opportunity to perhaps use the electoral leadership contest to really present more of an expansive or outward message to the broader South Africa. It’s been such a long process over the pandemic period and the process itself could very well have been more public. It could have called for greater participation.”
Political analyst Professor Somadoda Fikeni said the DA’s image would be dented by the decision to limit public debate. He said many people would view it as an attempt by the DA establishment, defined by Zille, to stifle a young black female leader, Ntuli.
He said the public would call out the DA’s hypocrisy “precisely because the DA had always been calling for transparency; had been calling for televised debates by the political party leaders [in elections].
“The same logic extended to them is the one that’s seemingly not accepted [by the party] and people will not make the distinction that this is an inner-party issue.”
“All they’ll know is that the DA had always used the logic of disclosing and being transparent and calling for public debates,” added Fikeni.
About 2,000 DA delegates will meet online next weekend to elect party leaders. Delegates also have the option of voting at designated physical voting stations. The party has said it tested its online systems and is ready for the unprecedented gathering. DM