After almost a month of being rudderless, the DA will on Sunday elect an interim leader.

Whoever takes the reins in the two-man race will have to lead the party through a turbulent period in the run-up to its first-ever policy conference and an early congress, set for April 2020, where a permanent leader will be elected. The events will determine the DA’s direction ahead of the 2021 local government elections.

One of the issues the party has to tackle is its economic policy — and, critically, whether it considers race to be a proxy for disadvantage. This affects the DA’s stance on empowerment, which has been at the heart of an ongoing "struggle for the soul of the party".

What comes next is critical, especially if the DA is to claw back some of the support it lost in the May general election and realise its dream of one day running some of SA’s biggest metros with an outright majority.

The FM sent questions to both candidates for interim leader — parliamentary leader John Steenhuisen and Gauteng MPL Makashule Gana. This is what they had to say:

Is race a proxy for disadvantage? How should it be measured?

Makashule Gana: In SA, race is still a proxy for disadvantage. When the DA arrived at this conclusion in 2013 it was informed by the prevailing material conditions in the country. Nothing much has changed — if at all.

It is my considered view that the legacy of apartheid still persists and the government has not done enough in the past 25 years. It is thus our responsibility to work at redress and correct the wrongs and injustices of the past.

John Steenhuisen: I don’t think disadvantage needs a proxy. On the contrary, I am firmly of the opinion that redress (compensation) policies should target poor people directly — no proxy needed.

The central point is that when redress policies target poor people, their beneficiaries will still be black, because almost all poor people in SA are black. There is no need to resort to racial classification.

However, it cannot be said that almost all black people are poor. In fact, SA has a sizeable black middle class. Redress principally concerns making right a wrong. It is a matter of justice. SA’s redress policies should prioritise those people who still suffer the consequences of past discrimination and exclusion.

The DA is unequivocally committed to redressing the wrongs of the past. But it must be said that no redress policy can ever match the positive impact that a growing economy, excellent education, quality health care and safer streets would have on the lives of those who still suffer the consequences of past exclusion. This should be the DA’s focus and it certainly will be if I am elected leader.

What is the biggest threat to the DA?

Gana: The biggest threat is the rise of populism, which threatens to divide society even further. The task of the DA is thus to build an inclusive SA focused on social, economic and environmental justice.

My belief is that we are better together, and if we stand together we will overcome this threat.

Steenhuisen: The biggest threat is if the DA fails to achieve clarity and consensus about the party’s purpose and values. At the heart of this challenge is how we approach the question of race. I believe the DA must unite behind the value of nonracialism.

Our commitment to nonracialism must flow from the core liberal principle that every person should be judged on their own individual merits. None of us is first and foremost a representative sample of a racial group.

This does not mean we can ignore SA’s history of racial discrimination and exclusion. A true commitment to nonracialism requires a commitment to redressing the consequences of past racial discrimination and the poverty that persists as a result of it.

As a liberal party, the DA’s purpose is to promote individual freedom by ensuring that every person has the right, space and wherewithal to live a life they value. In SA, poverty more than any other factor stops people living a life they value. Therefore, our top priority is the fight against poverty.

Once we have philosophical coherence, we’ll be unstoppable.

The DA has historically prided itself on good governance, but its track record in metros after the 2016 local government elections has taken a knock with, for instance, the GladAfrica scandal in Tshwane, the billing issue in Joburg, the change of guard in Nelson Mandela Bay and the water crisis in Cape Town. How are you going to restore the DA’s image as a party that can be distinguished through excellence in governance?

Gana: We have 18 months before a local government election — the important focus is to serve to the best of our ability the citizens of all municipalities. We will have formal knowledge-sharing sessions with our governments, and the governance unit headed by James Selfe will be strengthened so that it gives more support to the mayors and MMCs. Thus there will be increased political oversight.

Steenhuisen: It is absolutely essential that we restore the DA’s image of excellence in government. The solution once again is to go back to our values and implement these values where we govern.

We have to make sure that where we govern, we govern well and for all residents. This is obviously not easy in coalition governments and there are competing interests, but we must ensure that efficient and cost-effective delivery, according to the DA manifesto, is at the front and centre of these governments.

Second, we need to return to being a party that appoints leaders on merit, who are committed to our core values. I believe [outgoing Joburg mayor Herman] Mashaba is such a leader. James Selfe is also such a leader, which is why we have appointed him to head our governance unit.

Councillors are at the very coal-face of interaction with voters, and so I would like to ensure that where capacity building needs to take place, the DA makes this available to strengthen our public representatives and to ensure that our governments are responsive to their constituents’ needs so that they can show voters that we are making progress where we govern.

Finally, we need to ensure we have public representatives who are committed to our values and our purpose and are able to articulate these.

What would you do to ensure that the DA grows in the 2021 local government elections?

Gana: Over and above the work that our local governments will do in delivering services, I will be spending more time with our councillors, MPs, MPLs and branch structures so that we are all on the same page.

Of importance is to ensure that all our members continue to believe in the DA so as to have enough confidence when interacting with voters.

I will also encourage all public representatives and members to increase voter interactions, public meetings and serving the communities.

Steenhuisen: I will provide the decisive leadership necessary to unite the party behind a set of values and a purpose we can all believe in and be passionate about. Once the party is united, we will be able to communicate a single message with spellbinding clarity: that the DA is the party that can build one prosperous SA for all.

Why should you lead the DA?

Gana: In the past 17 years as a member of the DA I have acquired the experience and skills needed to lead the party.

I bring with me new thinking and ideas, as I believe the DA has to be the party of social, economic and environmental justice, and of a growing economy, and [be] a party that appeals to young people. I bring with me a lot of energy and passion for the task that lies ahead. I am a proven leader.

Steenhuisen: Because I am 100% committed to the party’s foundational liberal values and to its cause of building one prosperous SA for all. And I am confident I can unite the party around these values and this mission, and therefore grow the party’s size and influence.

I am also completely determined to build a modern and progressive party of new ideas and policies, with a clear and unambiguous offer rooted in our values. Proudly proclaiming our own compelling vision and offer — not just going on about how bad things are under the ANC, but how great they can be under the DA.