South Africa: Opposition Parties, Coalitions and the Future of South African Democracy

The following speech was delivered by DA Federal Leader, John Steenhuisen, at Chatham House in London.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you very much for the opportunity to address this revered forum, and for giving up your precious time to come and listen to me.

I addressed Chatham House almost exactly two years ago, but back then I had to do so via Zoom. That was when the world was still coming to grips with a pandemic that would go on to cause immeasurable suffering and damage across the globe.

It feels like so much has changed since then. These past two years have seen world economies taken to the brink. Sectors such as tourism and hospitality, in particular, have been extremely hard hit and many businesses did not survive the often heavy-handed responses of their governments.

Back in South Africa, where there is no financial buffer to speak of and where our government’s financial support for affected businesses and employees amounted to little more than a token gesture, thousands of restaurants, hotels, tour operators and other businesses operating in the tourism sector did not survive the lockdown restrictions.

Those that did barely held on by a thread, and many had to reinvent the way they operated to stay afloat.

But today the world is traveling once more and South Africa’s last remaining restrictions have finally been lifted. Our masks have come off, our sports stadiums and concerts are back to full capacity, and our conference venues are very much open for business.

It is absolutely wonderful to finally see the tourist and business travel numbers in South Africa ticking up again – to see hotels filling up, restaurants buzzing once more, and to hear all the lovely languages and accents of travelers as they explore South Africa’s incredible attractions.

We are ready to welcome the world once more to our unique and beautiful country, and to show that we haven’t been resting on our laurels these past two years. Which, I’m afraid, the traveling Welsh rugby team is about to discover as they take on a recharged Springboks in Pretoria on Saturday.

I am sure they will receive a South African welcome they won’t forget.

I am delighted to be able to address you in person this time round. London in mid-summer is a wonderful place to visit and your city is looking beautiful.

I don’t travel overseas all that often, but when I do it seems to get my detractors a little riled up.

As some of you might know, I recently visited Ukraine and spent a week in and around Kyiv, meeting Ukrainian leaders, academics and civil society to get a first-hand account of the situation in the country, and to express the solidarity of South Africans with the people of Ukraine, despite the cowardly and immoral Russia-friendly position our ANC government has taken.

Unsurprisingly, my trip was met with howls of indignation from our government, and much hand-wringing and tut-tutting from the chattering classes. “Who does Steenhuisen think he is, and doesn’t he have more pressing matters back home?” they all furiously typed in their reports and op-eds.

The short answer to this is that I am the leader of the official opposition – a party that governs for over 20 million people in the Western Cape province and 38 metros and municipalities – and I am perfectly capable of dealing with the many pressing matters back home as well as representing the views of the majority of South Africans on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

If I had to listen to the DA’s critics and moderate my behaviour according to the opinions expressed in our media, I would likely end up doing nothing and saying nothing. But that is not who I am, and that is not what the DA is.

Ours is a country where many commentators still cannot see beyond the liberation movement-turned-government, and this limiting horizon often informs their opinions and critiques.

Even as voters come to terms with reality and turn their backs on the ANC in droves, there is still a stubborn inability amongst many journalists, analysts and opinion formers to envisage a future that does not involve the ANC.

Intellectually, they know the party is done, but emotionally they are still invested in it.

And so my trip to Ukraine was met with an entirely predictable media pile-on. But this was no different to the media pile-on the DA has had to endure on every single topic it has spoken out on for the past two decades.

On each of these topics we have since been vindicated, although there is seldom any recognition of this after the fact.

We were called all sorts of awful things when we warned the world 15 years ago about the dangers of Jacob Zuma and what his presidency would mean for our country. Today that is the unanimous view of the man, but at the time we were a lone voice.

We were called unpatriotic and even racist for daring to shatter the myth of the ANC, and for warning about the dangers of state capture and the role the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment played in facilitating such state capture.

We were, and still are, lambasted daily in the media for criticising the ANC’s elite enrichment scam which they dishonestly call Black Economic Empowerment, or for resisting the ANC’s attempts to expropriate private property without compensation, or for fighting to decentralise and liberate our country’s struggling economy from the grasp of a government still stuck in the Cold War.

Of course we are right on all these things, and history will continue to prove us right.

As we speak, the recently released report of the Zondo Commission of Enquiry into State Capture is proving us right on everything we have been saying for the past twenty years. This report has exposed the ANC as a massive extractive syndicate masquerading as a government, and it has rightly pinned much of the blame for this on the party’s policy of deploying its loyal cadres to the public service and state owned companies.

The reason the world knows so much today about the destructive and criminal practice of cadre deployment and state capture – and the reason so many people are finally able to connect the dots and point a finger at the true source of our country’s woes – is because the DA has not flinched for twenty years.

If we’d listened to the critics or if we’d been more sensitive to all the terrible things we’ve been called over the years, South Africa wouldn’t be standing at this crossroads today and contemplating ending its relationship with the ANC.

Someone had to say all those things and bust all those myths long before it became comfortable or popular to do so.

Thankfully our party is filled with deeply patriotic, committed and principled people who have learnt to roll with the punches and take an incredible amount of abuse – not just from our political opponents, but from all sectors, including the media – until a critical mass of people is finally prepared to admit that we were right all along when we issued warnings and connected the dots.

This has always been part of the DA’s DNA. Sixty years ago, our predecessor party, the Progressive Party, fought a lone battle in South Africa’s parliament against the apartheid government. And when I say lone, I mean literally one MP in the entire legislature.

For 13 years, Helen Suzman was the Progressive Party’s sole representative in the National Assembly. A lesser person would have wilted under the relentless barrage of hatred, heckling and insults she faced every single day from the National Party MPs.

She was called unpatriotic and a traitor to the South African cause for daring to speak out against the country’s racist and oppressive laws. She was mocked and ridiculed for visiting political prisoners and for speaking up on their behalf in parliament.

On one such an occasion she was accused of embarrassing South Africa with her questions in the House, to which she famously answered: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa, it is your answers.”

She was a woman of great courage and principle, and she played an invaluable role in holding government to account at a time when it would’ve been far easier to remain silent.

Six decades later, South Africa is almost unrecognisable from the days of that racist and oppressive regime. But there are some things that haven’t changed all that much. Being a principled and outspoken opposition in this country is still not easy, just as it wasn’t easy back then.

When the truth shatters myths and makes people uncomfortable, the immediate reaction is often to attack those who speak these truths. Widespread acceptance often only comes much later.

If the role of the opposition in a democracy is to hold those in power to account – and to do so even when this is a difficult and thankless task – then I can proudly say that the Democratic Alliance has fulfilled its role with distinction.

And today we are not alone in this either. There is now a groundswell of support for real change – political, economic and social – that spans civil society, the business community and other opposition parties.

A perceptible shift has taken place in recent years. For the first time in almost three decades, an ANC government is no longer considered an inevitability. It is no longer the default. South Africans across all races, ages and incomes are finally starting to envisage a different future.

The relentless assault on our democracy and the non-stop looting of state resources has finally started to outweigh the ANC’s struggle history, and this has opened the door to new possibilities for our country.

And thanks to our staggered election cycle, where municipal elections take place in between the national and provincial elections, South Africans have already had their first dress rehearsal of this change.

In last year’s local government elections, the ANC was pushed below 50% for the first time since our country became a democracy in 1994. In the process they lost control of several metros and municipalities, and their support was left teetering in many more.

In many of the councils they lost, opposition parties came together to unseat them. This has afforded South Africans a valuable opportunity to experience a test-run of a post-ANC South Africa, dominated by coalition politics, before going to the polls again in 2024.

What’s more, voters who want to make the most informed decision possible can now judge three different types of non-ANC government – those with outright DA governments, those with stable coalitions, and those with less stable minority governments.

It will come as no surprise that local governments with stable coalitions outperform those with minority governments, and that those with outright DA majorities fare the best of all. But it is the margin of difference that is perhaps surprising.

The week before last, the Auditor General released the annual municipal audit outcomes, which takes a comprehensive look at all aspects of local governance. In the only DA-run province, the Western Cape, 73% of municipalities achieved clean audits. Across the remaining eight ANC-run provinces the average was a paltry 8%.

Our party prides itself on these audit outcomes, because we know that clean governance is a direct result of our tireless efforts to build a capable and transparent state. Unlike the ANC, we don’t deploy party cadres for their loyalty, because we know that this is a short cut to state capture, the erosion of skills and the collapse of service delivery.

So when the Auditor General report confirms this astonishing statistical correlation between DA local governments and clean audits, we feel entirely vindicated. But still, there are critics who will say to us: But you can’t eat a clean audit – what does all of this mean for poor South Africans?

And that is why, in order to fully appreciate what it means, you have to read this report alongside some other critical statistics, one of which is our country’s terrifying unemployment rate.

Right now, almost 46% of adult South Africans cannot find work. This is one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. And when you look at youth employment – those under 25 years old – that percentage shoots up to well over 70%.

There is no country in the world where the prospect of finding a job is worse for young people than in South Africa.

Coupled with this is the large proportion of what our statisticians euphemistically call “discouraged jobseekers”. These are people who have given up looking for a job, and while they are still counted in the broad unemployment rate, our government excludes them from its official definition of unemployment. But they are the real measure of a country’s failure to bring hope.

At 29.5% – while still unacceptably high – the Western Cape’s broad unemployment rate is a full 16.5 percentage points lower than the national average of 45.5%. Statistically speaking, that’s a world apart.

Another set of data which should be read alongside the Auditor General’s report is Stats SA’s General Household Survey, which looks at things like access to basic services, access to schooling and household income. And here, too, the benefits of living under a DA government are undeniable.

Whether we’re talking access to piped water, electricity and refuse removal, whether we’re talking the number of children who attend pre-school, whether we’re talking the number of children who stay in school until their matric exams, or whether we’re talking the number of households that derive their income from a salary as opposed to a government grant, the one DA-run province stands head and shoulders above the other eight.

We call this the DA difference.

While clean municipal audits may sound dry and technical, these other things – clean water, electricity, schooling and jobs – are most certainly tangible in people’s lives. And the two are inextricably linked.

But if you want an even clearer, immediate comparison, you need look no further than the dire water situation in the Eastern Cape’s Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. Their dams are about to run dry after a period of sustained drought, and residents are now bracing for the inevitable – what is known as Day Zero back in South Africa.

And the reason everyone knows what Day Zero is, is because the DA-run City of Cape Town faced the prospect of its very own Day Zero a few years ago. Three consecutive years of drought had brought the city’s main dams perilously close to empty before relief finally came in the way of a wet winter.

But that’s where the comparison between the two cities ends, because the responses to the crises by their respective local governments could not have been more different.

In addition to a number of water augmentation initiatives and an obsessive effort to fix leaks and prevent wastage, the City of Cape Town along with the Western Cape provincial government also ran a groundbreaking public awareness campaign for the full duration of the crisis, with live dashboards on dam levels and water usage constantly communicated to residents.

The result was the world’s biggest water usage reduction campaign, without which the metro most certainly would have run out of water, and for which the City was rightly bestowed with international awards.

In contrast, the ANC-run coalition in NMB has kept ominously quiet as Day Zero approaches, and now with mere days of water left, has suddenly started frantically repairing leaks and infrastructure.

The difference between these two cities is simple: One has a stable government with an obsessive focus on efficiency and transparency, and the other has a council paralysed by a corrupt and unstable coalition.

Sometimes that difference can be a matter of life and death.

Elsewhere in the country, South Africans are bracing for an extremely hard winter as food and fuel prices continue to spike as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine, while praying that the ANC’s ongoing factional battle doesn’t spill over into violence. A repeat of last July’s riots and looting would be a crippling blow to our country.

But despite all of this – and despite the extreme poverty, unemployment and inequality numbers that continue to move in the wrong direction – there is a palpable sense of change in the country.

Across South Africa people are acutely aware of two parallel timelines: the systematic destruction of the country, and the implosion of the ANC.

Instinctively, everyone knows that South Africa’s future depends on the timing of these two events.

Should the ANC somehow manage to weather the storm just long enough to survive as party of national government into another election cycle, the chances of the country’s survival will deteriorate sharply.

But should the ANC continue to lose support at its current trajectory and become a minority party by our next elections in 2024 – and should a multi-party coalition then succeed in relegating the ANC to the opposition benches – South Africa will have a fighting chance at recovery.

The timing couldn’t possibly be tighter, and the stakes could not be higher. The next two years could very well make or break our country.

But we are under no illusions about what may be in store for us in the immediate future. The final kicks of the ANC, as their factions battle for the last of the spoils, will likely bring much disruption and chaos.

This is something we are going to have to navigate carefully, while maintaining the integrity of our institutions of democracy. It is critical that these upcoming elections remain free and fair.

And once we have navigated our way past the elections, we could then face the daunting task of having to constitute and manage a new coalition government comprised of a substantial number of smaller parties.

Such is the nature of our democracy, that every election cycle sees the birth of a host of new parties, many of which then succeed in winning just enough support to secure them a seat at the table. These one or two percent parties often become critical to the balance of a coalition, making these governments unstable and challenging to manage.

But if there is a party that can hold together a fraught coalition and steer it through the choppy waters of minority interests and “kingmaker” egos, it is the Democratic Alliance.

In fact, we are the only party in South Africa with a successful coalition history, and we learnt this skill in the trickiest testing ground of all: when the City of Cape Town became the first metro in South Africa to unshackle itself from the ANC back in 2006.

That watershed local government election saw the DA emerge as the majority party in an extremely unstable seven-party coalition, and the next five years were challenging, to put it mildly.

But by always placing our party’s non-negotiable governance principles at the heart of every decision, every policy and every budget, we successfully kept the coalition together and made such a positive turnaround in the metro that the DA was rewarded with an outright majority five years later.

The lessons we learnt in Cape Town in 2006, along with our current experience in leading coalition governments in three more metros and many more municipalities, have given us all the tools we need to achieve the same success at national level.

Key to this success – and the very first step in negotiating any possible coalition agreement – is placing our non-negotiable principles on the table upfront.

The wide array of small parties in these coalitions means that we won’t see eye to eye on everything, but if we have broad agreement on principles such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, non-racialism, building a capable state and unleashing the power of a market economy to create jobs, we know we can manage a government that will serve the interests of the people of South Africa.

Placing our party’s values and our governance principles at the centre of our coalition governments has not failed us before, and it will not fail us in 2024. It is around these values and principles that we will build a South Africa of peace, opportunity and prosperity.

A South Africa that not only looks inwards towards its own people, but also outwards as it cements its rightful place in the world as a nation that abhors oppression and empathises with the oppressed.

A South Africa not afraid to stand up to the world’s strongmen and bullies by always choosing the side of peace, justice and human rights.

That is the South Africa we clearly envisage in the DA. We know it is possible to achieve this, and we know it can happen in the next election.

We now have two years to convince voters back home that this is within reach.

In these next two years, the Democratic Alliance will don its two distinct hats – one of principled opposition and the other of capable government – to show voters that not only has the time come for a post-ANC South Africa, but also that a credible alternative with a proven track record exists.

If democratic South Africa’s first post-ANC coalition government has the DA’s values and the DA’s work ethic at its centre, our amazing country will have every chance at making a full recovery and stepping boldly into a bright new future.

If that isn’t worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.

Thank you.

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