DA interim leader John Steenhuisen launched his campaign to become the official opposition leader on Saturday, claiming to have the “most progressive” proposals to stabilise and grow the party.
After jiving to the tune of Brenda Fassie’s Weekend Special in a sweltering Hellenic Hall in Mouille Point, Cape Town, Steenhuisen, greeted the crowd of public representatives, activists and supporters: “Waar’s dit lekker? (Where is it nice?)”
“Hier’s dit lekker!” they responded, before Steenhuisen set out his case on why he believes he should be the party’s next leader, stating that the DA would rediscover its purpose under his leadership.
“I don’t need to remind you of the challenges we have faced over the last few years. The truth is that, somewhere along the way, we lost our bearings and we lost sight of where we were going.”
He said they needed to rediscover who they were, reconnect with the voters who had left them and connect with voters who had never voted for them.
Steenhuisen said, over the past few years, ill-discipline had crept into their ranks.
“We have been constantly undermined by members who say negative things about our party in the press, and work against us in councils and legislatures.
“When there is a lack of discipline, everybody suffers. I will ensure swift disciplinary action against DA members who undermine our party,” he said.
Steenhuisen said the DA was the most diverse party in South Africa, but had recently “got it wrong when it comes to diversity”.
“Nobody wins when we parachute people into positions of power for which they are not yet ready. It sets people up for failure, it builds resentment and its impacts on service delivery,” he said.
“I will reform the party to ensure that, when it comes to candidate selection, we are in a position to choose from a diverse pool of excellent candidates.”
‘Our country needs us’
Before setting out his policy positions, Steenhuisen said: “There is nothing wrong with the DA that can’t be fixed by what is right with the DA.
“The time has come to stand up, dust ourselves off and get back in the game. We simply have to succeed. Our country needs us.”
He said the only way to fix South Africa was to get the economy growing to create the millions of jobs needed to lift people out of poverty.
“I have a plan to radically grow the economy by providing policy certainty to attract investors, ditching BEE, privatising SOEs, reforming labour market regulation, making the tax system more efficient, to ensure that national funding is spent on the things that people need to help lift them out of poverty.”
He said he was particularly concerned about child poverty.
“We need to review our welfare system to ensure that not a single child gets left behind.”
He said he wanted to “free” South Africa from the coal-guzzling, flailing Eskom, by “fighting for the government to sell off its coal-fired power stations and enable independent private producers to generate most of our electricity using renewable sources like hydro-power, wind and solar”.
“This is how we will solve our electricity crisis, free the people of this country from Eskom, and become a world-leader in the battle against climate change.”
Steenhuisen said he was willing to make tough choices on labour laws, “for the sake of the 4.2 million young people who remain out of work, with no prospects of finding work”.
‘I am John Steenhuisen and I have a plan’
Concerning redress, Steenhuisen acknowledged that inequality was something that the DA has struggled with.
“I recognise and acknowledge that the injustices of the past were perpetrated on the basis of race. And I am firm in my commitment to redress this racial injustice.”
“However, as a liberal, I am also against all forms of racial labelling, classification and categorisation,” he said to a few “hear, hears” from the audience.
He said this had led to a dilemma.
“The answer lies in the mistaken belief that race-based policies work to benefit everybody in that racial group. Because the truth is, they don’t.
“I believe it is time for us to focus our empowerment efforts on poor and disadvantaged South Africans – 99% of whom are black. We need to stop re-empowering the same people; we need to, unlock opportunities for poor black South Africans instead.”
He said, as part of the DA’s current policy review process, he would work to ensure that the DA adopted a “means-tested paradigm to ensure that empowerment programmes benefit the people who desperately need them”.
He rejected expropriation without compensation and the government’s proposed National Health Insurance, saying the DA’s own policy was a better way to achieve universal health care.
He also called for action, instead of talking, against crime, promising that gender-based violence would be declared a priority.
“I am John Steenhuisen, and I have a plan to fix the DA and to fix SA. I invite you to join me in this historic mission,” he said to standing applause.
DA MP Alexandra Abrahams listens to DA interim leader John Steenhuisen’s speech at the launch of his campaign to become DA leader. (Jan Gerber, News24)
Several MPs attended, including DA chief whip Natasha Mazzone, James Selfe, Emma Louise Powell, Dean Macpherson and Glynnis Breytenbach. Also in attendance was Western Cape Premier Alan Winde and several Western Cape MPLs and Capetonian councillors, including JP Smith, Xanthea Limberg, Angus McKenzie, who introduced Steenhuisen, and Thulani Dasa, who led a poster-bearing group’s singing and dancing before proceedings got underway.
Steenhuisen’s mother, wife, and youngest daughter were also there.
After a change of shirt, Steenhuisen addressed a media briefing.
Asked if being the interim leader and having the high-profile position of parliamentary leader put him on the inside track to become party leader, Steenhuisen said incumbency was a blessing and a curse. He said it gave him experience, but opponents could “pretend” he represented the status quo in campaigning against him. He said he believed he was”putting the most progressive platform on the table”.
He said he welcomed the competition and was not going to campaign negatively.
“I’m in it to win it.”
“I don’t believe you need to be a black person to stand up for downtrodden black people,” he said, using Helen Suzman as an example.