Tue. May 28th, 2024

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, racially inclusive alternative to the majority-black 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 on a course in politics and law at 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 aged 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,

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

In 2011, shortly after his resignation, Mr Steenhuisen was elected to 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 and coloured (as people of mixed race are known in South Africa) people, in a country where they make up just 7% and 8% of the population respectively. So, partly in an attempt to appeal 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.

AFP South African main opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) newly elected federal leader John Steenhuisen rejoices with his family on the stage of the party’s Federal Congress in Midrand, Johannesburg on April 2, 2023.AFP
Mr Steenhuisen and his wife Terry have three daughters
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 as 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: “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 be living 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 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 which 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 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”.

Mr Calland describes Mr Steenhuisen’s tone as “often very brutal”, but says 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”.

He proved just that in 2022, when he appeared on popular comedy show Podcast and Chill with MacG.

Mr Steenhuisen appeared at ease, drinking gin with the young hosts and cracking jokes that made the young hosts erupt with laughter.

Fans of the podcast reacted with surprise, describing Mr Steenhuisen as “hilarious”, “a cool guy” and “really smart” in the YouTube comments.

He is charismatic, teems with political credentials and pledges to “rescue” South Africa with two million new jobs, an end to rolling power cuts and a move towards greater privatisation.

But critics say he has blind spots when it comes to the all-important issue of race and with his reputation as an abrasive party leader, does Mr Steenhuisen have what it takes to win over young black voters, who might hold the key to this election?

He thinks so. When asked by the Mail & Guardian if he believed South Africa was “ready” for a white president, Mr Steenhuisen countered: “Was America ready for Barack Obama? Was the UK ready for Rishi Sunak? They both come from minority groupings in their country and I think both have performed admirably.”

By Joy

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