South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance will elect a new leader this weekend with John Steenhuisen, who’s been acting in the position for the past year, looking set to head the party into next year’s municipal elections.
Steenhuisen’s sole challenger is lawmaker Mbali Ntuli, its former youth leader. Whoever wins will need to rebuild a party that shed support in last year’s national elections, faced a bruising internal power struggle and has battled to articulate clear positions around issues of race.
Steenhuisen, who is White and has the backing of most of the party’s top provincial leaders, concedes he may battle to draw votes from the predominantly Black electorate needed to pose a credible challenge to the ruling African National Congress. The DA has shunned race-based redress in a nation still grappling with the legacy of apartheid and where White households on average earn five times more than their Black counterparts.
“The party has struggled to find a message which resonates with White South Africans and the majority Black South Africans,” said Daniel Silke, the director of Cape Town-based Political Futures Consultancy and a former DA municipal councillor. “That struggle is likely to continue.”
The DA took control of Johannesburg, the economic hub, and Pretoria, the capital, and other towns away from the ANC in 2016 council elections — a backlash against Jacob Zuma’s scandal-marred rule. Cyril Ramaphosa replacing Zuma as president in 2018 helped stop the decline in support for the ruling party.
Steenhuisen, 44, was named the DA’s caretaker leader when Mmusi Maimane quit after his predecessor Helen Zille made a political comeback as the party’s chairwoman. Several other senior leaders, including Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, also resigned.
The DA election will take place at a virtual conference for the first time due to the coronavirus. The results are likely to be announced on Nov. 1.
“The party has not been able to speak with one voice as a result of the leadership issue remaining in limbo,” Silke said. “At the very least, clearing up the leadership issue will allow the party to have someone who can consolidate the various factions and pronounce more clearly on what will become a DA policy.”
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