DA's interim Leader John Steenhuisen at the DA head office in Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
DA's interim Leader John Steenhuisen at the DA head office in Johannesburg. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

In 2015, as I was easing into semi-retirement, I was seized, as many were, by a desire to help stem the rot in our country and oppose Jacob Zuma and his ANC.

I had long ceased to vote for the ANC, but by then I had resolved to take on an active role in opposition to the party that had shamelessly begun to reflect a systemic malaise that began with the arms deal — a graft-ridden military procurement programme involving a $4.8bn purchase of weaponry by the ANC government led by Nelson Mandela in 1999.

Towards the end of 2015 Zuma sacked the respected Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister and in a surprise move replaced him with the little-known Des van Rooyen. Not only was this seen as a blunder by opposition parties, but also by the public and the financial markets.

The fallout from this naked attempt at effecting what since has come to be known as state capture, forced the then president to acknowledge his mistake, change his mind and appoint the experienced Pravin Gordhan. In spite of this, the country continued to be bled by Zuma, his ANC and partners in crime.

My decision to oppose the ANC, given my family heritage and association with the party, was not an easy one. In some ways I went through a similar process as Mitt Romney when he resolved to vote for Donald Trump’s impeachment. Romney said: “I have gone through a process of thorough analysis and searching, and I have prayed through this process.” As an atheist I didn’t pray. I did however search my soul.

I decided after much interaction with trusted advisers and people in the official opposition, to join the DA, the most substantial bulwark against the ANC’s malaise.

The first battle was the fight for the mayorship in Ekurhuleni where we were able to bring the ANC down from 66% to under 50%, showing phenomenal growth on a shoestring budget. The pattern was repeated in Johannesburg and Tshwane, albeit on larger budgets. That was 2016 and we were on the up.

The DA had become my political home, one that embodied the tenets of my deeply-felt liberalism, tempered by a degree of pragmatism that the deeply divided, emerging market economy of SA demanded.

My dedication to these values shaped aspects of my interaction in the party, centred as they were on nonracial, free-market orientated policies that championed individual choice over a collectivist agenda and that confronted corruption in no uncertain terms. Not everyone in the party shared this view and in the 2019 national elections, a host of factors resulted in an unprecedented decline in performance.

The post-election party-commissioned review pointed to “a lack of clarity about the party’s vision and direction, confusion about the party’s position on key issues, the erosion of the party’s unity of purpose and deep divisions within the national caucus”.

The party has since sought to remedy this and a policy conference has been scheduled. Many of the foundational values and principles of the DA have been encapsulated in draft form to be debated and endorsed by the forthcoming policy conference in April.

Values shape our beliefs, worldview and the paradigm in which we operate. These have been muddied over time and it is crucial that these are robustly debated with due regard to foundational principles.

The draft, mandated by the DA’s federal executive, represents a credible attempt to lay a foundation for approval by the party. There are areas which require tweaking and no doubt adjustments will be made. I have my own views on the document which I will feed into the process.

This will be followed by a federal congress in May, when the leader of the party will be elected. The adopted values, most certainly not race, should determine who gets elected. How this plays out though, is anyone’s guess. We are a democratic party after all.

Four candidates are standing for election — John Steenhuisen (incumbent leader, former chief whip of the party in the National Assembly), Mbali Ntuli (former youth leader and KZN provincial campaign director), John Moodey (member of the provincial legislature and leader in Gauteng) and Bonginkosi Madikizela (member of the provincial legislature and leader in the Western Cape).

They are yet to make their manifestos public but the lines have been drawn and it is essential that each candidate is evaluated on their manifesto and the principles they espouse. Personalities should not to be the arbiter, as is sadly often the case.

Thus far, Steenhuisen has embarked on a nationwide listening tour and has nailed his colours to an essentially liberal, nonracial mast, by declaring “race as a proxy for disadvantage has failed many ordinary South Africans”.

Thirty-one-year-old Ntuli’s opening salvo attacked the DA’s current leadership which she says has lost its fairness, while contending that the exits of Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba exposed the party’s shortcomings.

Moodey, a staunch supporter of erstwhile leader Maimane (who left the party because he felt it could not be a vehicle that embodied his views that were largely defined by race as a proxy for disadvantage), has pledged to fix divisions and internal factions.

Madikizela, who pulled out of the race for federal leader late last year has been relatively silent, is yet to reveal his hand.

These stances, some predicated lamentably on racial lines, are of concern to me as I consider whom to vote for. I am keen to interrogate their views and vision against the policies and values of the party.

The battle will be fought over the policies which guide the party and how they resonate with foundational principles that differentiate us from other parties. Any prospective leader will have to sign up unequivocally to these in advance of the leadership contest.

The showers of April and the cold winds of May will, as it were, determine what is at play. We’re in for interesting times, as they say.           

• Cachalia is a DA MP