AfricaPolitics

John Steenhuisen: The man vowing to rescue’ South Africa with the DA

South African opposition leader John Steenhuisen believes he has what it takes to eventually become president.

That is despite coming up against the thorny issue of race and the African National Congress’s 30-year grip on power.

For decades, he has argued that his party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is the key to South Africa’s progress.

The centre-right movement emerged from the liberal white benches of the old apartheid parliament, positing itself as a liberal alternative to the ANC.

Mr. Steenhuisen joined the DA as an activist in the 1990s, when he was roughly 19 years old.

“I decided to go into politics because of my frustration with the status quo in our country, where South Africa’s immense potential was being squandered at the hands of an inept government,” he said in a 2020 interview.

A young Mr. Steenhuisen enrolled in a course in politics and law at the university but never graduated—something he was later mocked for by social media users and other politicians.

In a defiant speech to parliament, Mr. Steenhuisen, then chief whip of the DA, said “financial and work pressures” had forced him to drop out.

“I’m not ashamed of this because I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a public representative,” he said.

Mr. Steenhuisen certainly showed ambition as a budding politician; he was elected as a councillor for his home city of Durban at age 22 and is thought to be one of the youngest to have ever held this post.

From there, the future leader scaled the ranks of regional politics—that is, until 2010, when he was forced to resign as the DA’s leader for the KwaZulu-Natal region after it emerged that he was having an affair.

At the time, Mr. Steenhuisen was married but also romantically involved with a DA spokeswoman, Terry Kass Beaumont. Ms. Beaumont also had a spouse, DA KwaZulu-Natal official Michael Beaumont.

Mr. Steenhuisen’s infidelity did “no significant damage” to his career, Paddy Harper, a journalist with South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, tells the BBC.

Mr. Harper notes that Mr. Steenhuisen eventually married Ms. Beaumont, which may have prevented the affair from becoming a stain on the opposition leader’s legacy.

In 2011, shortly after his resignation, Mr. Steenhuisen was elected to the national parliament. Three years later, he became the DA’s chief whip.

At this point, the party was preparing to make a major change. The DA has long been perceived as a party that promotes the interests of white, Asian, and coloured (as people of mixed race are known in South Africa) people in a country where they make up just 7%, 3%, and 8% of the population, respectively.

So, partly in an attempt to diversify its appeal, the DA appointed its first black leader.

The charismatic Mmusi Maimane was viewed as the party’s best shot at the presidency, but he quit just four years later.

As the DA reeled from his exit, Mr. Maimane said the party was the wrong “vehicle” for uniting a South Africa that remains divided along racial lines 30 years after the end of white-minority rule.

Mr. Steenhuisen was appointed interim leader the following month, but what should have been an unquestionable triumph for this dedicated DA member was not without contention.

Social media users pointed out that the DA leadership was now all white, while DA officials who had quit alongside Mr. Maimane warned the party was lurching back to the right.

When asked last year whether the DA’s image as a “fundamentally white party” was a structural issue, Mr. Steenhuisen told the BBC: “People are looking beyond race towards competence, [the] ability to get things done and being able to deliver—that’s the game in town, and that’s going to be the game in the next election.”

He opposes race quotas in the workplace, introduced by the ANC in a bid to close South Africa’s racial economic gap, calling them “crude” and unsuccessful.

On Mr. Steenhuisen’s approach to racial issues, South African political analyst Robert Calland says: “He comes across as someone who is privileged but unconscious, unaware of the context, unaware of the lived reality for most South Africans.”

This makes it hard for him to extend his appeal to black voters, who are still far more likely to live in poverty than the white population.

South Africa was the world’s most unequal country in 2022, a situation partly driven by race, according to the World Bank.

Nevertheless, Mr. Steenhuisen is clearly popular within the DA. He has been re-elected twice as party leader, receiving 80% or more of the vote each time.

Some analysts believe a portion of Mr. Steenhuisen’s clout comes from Helen Zille, the DA’s former leader and still a major political figure within South Africa.

“Zille has continued to be the power behind the throne. Her attitude is that her presence is essential, not just for the DA but for the future of democracy in South Africa,” Mr. Calland says.

“Steenhuisen, I think, is to a large extent beholden to her. Her support was essential for him to become a leader.”

A poll taken ahead of the 29 May elections put the DA’s support at 21.9%—not enough to beat the ANC, which is at 40.2%—although this is a huge fall for a party that has taken at least 50% of the vote in every election since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

In an effort to win more than half of the vote needed to take power, Mr. Steenhuisen has formed a coalition with a number of smaller parties.

He has also acknowledged he may need to join forces with the ANC itself, saying in March he would not rule out a deal with the governing party should it fail to get a majority in parliament.

Despite recognising the benefit of cross-party cooperation, Mr. Steenhuisen has been known to pull no punches when it comes to rival parties.

Ahead of the election, he accused smaller political parties campaigning in the Western Cape, where the DA is in power at the regional level, of seeking to loot the province in “the biggest bank heist you’ve ever seen,” local media reported.

He also said a possible coalition between the ANC and the radical Economic Freedom Fighters would lead to a “doomsday scenario” and defended a DA election advert featuring a burning national flag, which had angered some South Africans.

Mr. Calland describes Mr. Steenhuisen’s tone as “often very brutal,” but says that despite his outspoken nature, the DA leader can be sensitive about criticism of his party.

Mr. Harper agrees, saying, “He defends the party hard, and he’s quite sensitive towards it… If you write something and he doesn’t like it, he will engage with it.”

Such “engagement” has taken place at press conferences or via phone calls to analysts or journalists, Mr. Harper says.

But, he adds, “in a social environment,” Mr. Steenhuisen “can be fun.”.

When he made an appearance on the well-liked comedy programme Podcast and Chill with MacG in 2022, he demonstrated exactly that.

Mr. Steenhuisen looked relaxed as he shared gin with the youthful hosts and told jokes that caused them to burst out laughing.

In response, surprised podcast listeners called Mr. Steenhuisen “a cool guy,” “hilarious,” and “really smart” in the YouTube comments.

He promises to “rescue” South Africa with two million new jobs, an end to rolling blackouts, and a shift towards increased privatisation. He is charming and brimming with political experience.

However, detractors claim he lacks awareness of the crucial racial issue, and given his harsh party leadership style, is Mr. Steenhuisen up to the task? To win over the potential swing voters in this election—young black voters?

He believes that. In response, Mr. Steenhuisen said, “Was America ready for Barack Obama? ” when questioned by the Mail & Guardian about whether he thought South Africa was “ready” for a white president. Was Rishi Sunak prepared for the UK? They both belong to minority groups in their own countries, and both have done a commendable job, in my opinion.

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