The battle for the soul of the DA is far from over, at least on the part of those who call themselves the “progressive” faction within the party.
News24 spoke to four party members who all say that the progressives are biding their time – and waiting for both the policy and elective conferences – to make their move.
This is the same faction that lost against party chair Helen Zille – and, in extension, the “classical liberals” – during the battle royal at the federal council chair elections.
These elections saw Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the group, resigning as a party member. The party will now elect an interim leader – either parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen or newly elected chairperson of the provincial legislatures network Makashule Gana – on Sunday.
The party, which has been battling to chart its way and convey its message to South Africans, has struggled to define itself, with some wanting it to remain “pure” and orthodox, while others arguing it should be about embracing and rallying around shared values.
This has seen party members differing on how much the state needs to assist in creating an inclusive environment for people to thrive in, or whether to intervene to address past imbalances.
A party insider and a provincial leader told News24 that the upcoming elections would not deter the party from its end game.
“We suffered hard losses with resignations of our leaders. We now need to gear up for the final battle and [an] interim leader is not what we want. The faction that won the elections is at a high. Most likely, Steenhuisen will win the election, but if we can win the policy conference, we have done something right. If that fails, I will have to find a new home,” the source said.
Another source, who sits on the federal council, agreed that they were playing the long-term game, adding that an interim leader had no powers.
“The delay of the policy conference is good for us, as it is for the other side. If you win the conference and become the face of the party, you get to strengthen your hand and then seek policies that you want to advance. Gana must contest [Steenhuisen], he shouldn’t get handed the position of interim leader,” the council member said.
Another DA leader emphasised the importance of the party’s first policy conference. The leader said this would be a defining moment for the party and for many of its black supporters.
“Herman [Mashaba]’s speech still haunts me when I go to bed. I don’t care what his motives are for resigning, but what the man said was true. Policy will answer this question of race and finally end this so-called battle for the soul. What I will not do, and I think many of my comrades will not do, is to be part of a party I cannot sell to my own people,” the party leader said.
Race has been an overarching subject and at the core of the party’s challenges in recent history. This was emphasised when, on Tuesday, News24 learnt that Gana had sent a letter to party members ahead of this weekend’s election.
In the letter, Gana makes the argument that the party cannot ignore race in formulating its redress policies.
“To many black people, ‘blackness’ is irrevocably linked to their material conditions, which are more dire compared to their white compatriots. It absolutely does not hurt to acknowledge this predicament,” he writes in the letter.
Gana makes the point that it was “hypocritical” to use black leaders to win votes, while emphasising that race did not matter.
“The first question we have to ask is whether the DA can continue to propound a brand of politics that strains to emphasise that race does not matter, and yet recognises that, in order to win elections, it has to have black leadership? I do not think this is sustainable, because it is fundamentally hypocritical for more than one reason.”
In contrast, Steenhuisen, speaking during an interview on Talk Radio 702 on Tuesday morning, said South Africans had become “far too obsessed with race”.
He said one didn’t have to be a “black South African to speak for poor South Africans who are living in poverty”.