By Douglas Gibson[i]
I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the Democratic Alliance Federal Congress over the weekend. Having attended party congresses since 1960, I have considerable experience of the positives and the negatives (and sometimes the horrors and joys) of these important occasions which ensure that democracy, constitutionalism, the rule of law, and the accountability of the leaders are maintained.
This 2023 Congress was the best, and the best organised, that I have ever attended. It was a testimony to Helen Zille, chairperson of the Federal Executive, and her staff, that the congress functioned like a well-oiled engine. Everything worked; the 2000 delegates were in remarkably good spirits throughout, dancing and singing, mixing the serious business with enjoying the jaw-droppingly good entertainment and being punctual. Everything ran on time; things happened when they should. The contrast with the shambolic ANC conference late last year was cruel to the latter. Perhaps there is merit in the DA slogan: “Where the DA governs, we govern better.”
The most striking feature of the congress was that the attendance reflected South Africa. Delegates came from every corner of our country and there seemed to me to be far more Black delegates than White. That is what the DA is today: it looks like South Africa. About one-third White supporters, and two-thirds Black, Coloured, and Asian. Certainly, worlds ahead of the ANC which had to compensate for its mono-racial complexion by co-opting Mr Koornhof to the hundred-strong National Executive[DG1].
Apart from resolutions and constitutional amendments, and short addresses by DA mayors, the main business of the congress was the election of a plethora of office-bearers as part of the national leadership. Provincial, regional, and constituency leaders are elected at different times and at appropriate meetings throughout the year.
Both candidates for the leadership, Dr Mpho Phalatse, former mayor of Johannesburg, and John Steenhuisen, incumbent leader of the DA and leader of the opposition in South Africa, addressed delegates and did so most impressively. Apart from one or two comments here and there beforehand, the election was conducted in a remarkably peaceful manner by all.
Steenhuisen emerged as the leader and made some significant and worthwhile speeches. One of the most striking was his absolute commitment to opposing what he described as “night,” an ANC/EFF coalition in 2024. He said the first prize would be for the DA to win enough support to be able to form a DA-led coalition.
He made an offer to the leaders of other opposition parties to establish with him what he called a moonshot effort to bring the ANC below 50% and at all costs to avoid the prospect of a coalition between the ANC and the EFF. The response of other opposition party leaders will be fascinating – certainly, the DA hopes to signal an era of much greater cooperation between these parties and end the unproductive slagging off that has been an unhappy feature of some coalitions (by no means all) at local government level. Any coalition will demand that the parties commit themselves to an agreed plan of action and that their basic policies and outlook are at least compatible. In no circumstances will the DA enter into a coalition with the EFF to form a new government. It would be a disaster because the DA has learnt from its experience that parties committed to diametrically opposed policies and principles do not belong together and, especially in a national government, would provide an unacceptable instability.
[i] Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com