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South Africa's Steenhuisen wages mission to stop 'doomsday coalition'

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South Africa's Steenhuisen wages mission to stop 'doomsday coalition'

Image of John Steenhuisen
DA leader John Steenhuisen

27th May 2024

By: Reuters

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On paper, South Africa's election this week should present a golden opportunity for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and its leader John Steenhuisen.

The African National Congress (ANC) - the party of Nelson Mandela in power for the last 30 years - has little to boast about. The economy has barely grown in the last decade. The jobless rate is among the world's highest. Infrastructure is crumbling.

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The DA, the country's second biggest party, can point to an objectively better track record in Western Cape, its stronghold and the sole province not controlled by the ANC.

Yet, if pre-election polling is accurate, its support has hardly budged since it won roughly a fifth of votes in the last general election in 2019.

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Despite campaign missteps and the DA's struggles to broaden its support, however, Steenhuisen could find himself in a pivotal position after the May 29 vote in which the ANC is expected to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time.

While it's been seen improving recently, some polls have put ANC support as low as 40%, an embarrassing beating if it happens that would make a coalition with small parties difficult.

And though Steenhuisen, 48, has vowed that the ANC must go, he has not excluded a post-election deal if it keeps the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and former president Jacob Zuma's uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) out of government. The EFF promises to nationalise industries and seize white-owned land.

"I'm not ruling out anything depending on what the election results are going forward," he said in an interview with Reuters in March.

NO VOTES FOR WHITE PRIVILEGE

The pro-business DA has long struggled to shake off its image as a party of South Africa's privileged white minority and appeal to Black voters, a cause that has not been helped by a succession of defections by Black DA lawmakers.

Steenhuisen, 48, who is white, became leader in 2019 after his Black predecessor Mmusi Maimane resigned, accusing some within the party of undermining his efforts to court Black voters.

Steenhuisen, who comes from South Africa's eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, has been immersed in the DA his entire adult life, starting as an activist before his election as a DA city councillor in Durban at the age of just 22.

He told Reuters the DA was the party of all South Africans.

"I don't want people to vote for the DA if they think that we're here to protect and entrench white privilege," he said. "Our policies are the best mechanism to deliver people from living a life of abject poverty amidst failing services."

A March opinion survey by the Brenthurst Foundation and the SABI Strategy Group suggests many South Africans do have faith in the DA's ability to govern.

DA-run Western Cape and its capital Cape Town were considered by far the best governed province and major city. And 37% of respondents had a favourable view of the party.

Steenhuisen's own favourability, however, lags well behind at 19%.

"Part of the reason the DA is not doing better is because there is a question mark around the leadership," said Melanie Verwoerd, an independent South African analyst. "It's both in tone and then also in content."

Under Steenhuisen, the DA has doubled down on economically liberal policies that could struggle to gain traction among poor Black South Africans.

And the decidedly negative campaign he is leading has been dogged by a series of own goals.

A recent DA advert, for example, depicted a South African flag burning. The image meant to symbolise the risks should the ANC go into coalition with left-wing parties, but it provoked an immediate backlash.

Opponents pounced. President Cyril Ramaphosa called the ad "treasonous". National broadcaster South African Broadcasting Corporation refused to air it.

So when it should have been focusing on rallying last-minute support, the DA found itself playing defence.

Still, it is on course to retain its position among South Africa's major parties, with Steenhuisen enduring as a political force set on fending off an ANC tie-up with the EFF or MK in what he's dubbed "a doomsday coalition".

"We will do whatever we can to prevent that," he said.

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