South Africa: DA poster row exposes divisions in the party

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Thursday, 14 October 2021 08:36

Federal leader of South Africa's Democratic Alliance (DA) John Steenhuisen poses for a photo with an election poster of DA during a party gathering in Cape Town, legislative capital of South Africa, on Sept. 14, 2021. (Xinhua/Lyu Tianran)

Internal party rows over a controversial set of election posters have laid bare infighting in South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance ahead of crucial local government elections on 1 November.

It has pitted the party’s top leadership against its provincial leaders, after the latter were unanimous that campaign posters with messages that could further stoke race tensions in the predominantly Indian neighbourhood of Phoenix, in Durban, should be taken down.

Race troubles

A number of people died in this neighbourhood following a week of unbridled looting, arson and violence in the city in July. Some residents formed armed vigilante groups due to fears that looters would invade their homes once all the malls had been ransacked.

There were, however, accusations that some of these groups targeted black people passing through the neighbourhood, and that a number of innocent people were murdered and their corpses were left lying on the streets. Some ANC leaders accused the Indian residents of racism, but the DA said these residents were only acting in self-defence.

The DA’s set of posters, which were attached to lamp poles in the area, read: “The ANC calls you racists” and “The DA calls you heroes”.

The party’s chairperson in the KwaZulu-Natal province, Dean McPherson, admitted that he put up the posters without prior authorisation by the party and he agreed to take it down after DA provincial leader, Francois Rodgers, as well as the party leaders in the other eight provinces, distanced themselves from the posters.

Pushback from provinces

In a meeting of the party’s federal executive committee (fedex) this week, they told party leader John Steenhuisen that the posters should go down. Steenhuisen – who hails from KwaZulu-Natal and is close to McPherson – has, however, called the row an “unhelpful distraction” in an interview with News24, and maintained he would not apologise for these.

Chairperson of the party’s fedex, Helen Zille, has similarly refused to denounce the posters as divisive, instead telling the national broadcaster, SABC, on Wednesday morning: “I reject the majority scapegoating of a minority.” She said to accuse all Indians of being racist, as some politicians have done, and to say “cut the throat of whiteness” are amongst the kind of utterances that led to things like the Rwandan genocide of 1994 or the Holocaust which saw the persecution of Jewish people.

She added: “The majority government is failing every single person in this country. They cannot fulfill their most basic responsibilities of keeping people safe. That’s the primary job of the state. That’s why it exists. It cannot even do that and when people do it on their own – and obviously there is some vigilantism that we reject – but when people defend their lives and property on their own they cannot be targeted by overwhelming majority and a state that fails to do its job.”

Zille did not attend the fedex meeting, leaving Steenhuisen to deal with the pushback. Zille told The Africa Report that she was unable to make the Zoom meeting due to her campaign schedule.

Former MP Mike Waters, who is considered a close ally of Zille, resigned from his position as DA campaign manager in the Ekurhuleni region in Gauteng in the wake of the Fedex decision, in a letter accusing the party of “spineless treachery” for ordering the removal of the posters.

McPherson initially defended the posters but after the party told him off, he apologised in a statement, saying: “In my sincere effort to honour the bravery and heroism of law-abiding citizens who were left to fend for themselves during the July riots and insurrections, the posters have regretfully caused hurt to some people. I am deeply sorry and apologise for this.”

Leadership under fire

The debacle has also led to some within the party questioning Steenhuisen’s leadership, with some pointing out that the party’s internal polls have shown that about three-quarters of voters do not know who he is.

There are also rumours of a move within the party to fire him after the elections in the same way his predecessor, Mmusi Maimane, was forced to resign after the 2019 national elections after a dismal election performance. The DA is not expected to do much better in the upcoming elections, with Steenhuisen variously putting predictions of the party’s share of the vote between 20% and 24%.

The party managed almost 27%  in the previous local government elections five years before after it rallied mostly urban voters to go to the ballot box to protest against the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma. Much of the sentiment against the ruling party’s leadership has since subsided, and the DA has at the same time failed to grow its base amongst the majority black voters, instead choosing to focus on the white voters it was losing to a more right-wing party.

Race has previously sparked fierce battles within the party, with many of its more activist black leaders having resigned since Maimane’s sacking or keeping a low profile in the current elections campaign. “Everyone who would normally be saying something is quiet,” a party leader said.

DA hops to the right

The current poster controversy is consistent with the DA’s move to the right, Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies at the University, recently wrote in The Conversation. He labelled the posters “inflammatory and insensitive” but said these were “not a bolt from the blue. They were consistent with messages the DA’s current leadership has been sending out for some time.” He noted, for example, that Zille had become notorious for her Twitter outbursts, which often sounded like those of Donald Trump.

The names of the party’s chief whip in the National Assembly, Natasha Mazzone, as well as its mayoral candidate for Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, have been mentioned as possible contenders should Steenhuisen be forced out of his position.

He is a master in the dark art of political infighting, so brave will be the man or woman who will take him on in an internal party fight.

Insiders say they prefer a kinder, more gentler approach by the party. Commentators, however, say the chances of this is small.

Nompumelelo Runji, writer and CEO of consultancy Critical ThinkAR, told a South African Jewish Board of Deputies webinar on the elections on Tuesday that Steenhuisen’s position is safe for now.

“He might be given an opportunity to say ‘this was a difficult time, it’s Covid, it’s a pandemic, and the party is in a transition, it’s repositioning itself, it’s restructuring itself. I doubt whether there will be as much of a push as there was when Mmusi Maimane was leader,” she said.

Writer and political analyst Jan-Jan Joubert agreed, saying there were no real challengers to Steenhuisen. “He is a master in the dark art of political infighting, so brave will be the man or woman who will take him on in an internal party fight.”

He added, however, that it was difficult to understand why the DA had not yet axed McPherson in the light of the poster row, “who by his own admission broke every rule in the party rule book and put up a poster which clearly brought the party into complete disrepute”.

It was doubtful, he said, whether the infighting would damage the DA’s electoral prospects, since the major electoral alternatives don’t look much more attractive. The governing African National Congress itself is currently beset by infighting, with some of its own leaders sabotaging the campaign of others, and voters indicating that they would stay at home in protest. “A low turnout is bad news for democracy, but it can only be blamed on the quality of South Africa’s political parties,” he said.

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