John Steenhuisen
John Steenhuisen

Election season has begun in SA’s official opposition, the DA.

While the Democratic Party in the US fights it out for delegates in the various primaries to take on Donald Trump, the DA’s hopefuls have only entered the launch stage of their campaigns for the leadership of a party that clings to the hope that it is a national government in waiting.

The DA leadership stakes are as significant to SA as the Democrats’ battle is for the US: both parties need to sort themselves out before critical elections. The ANC remains a behemoth which the DA hasn’t yet been able to cut down to size, despite the strides it made in the 2016 local government polls, which were promptly reversed at last year’s general election.

On Monday the DA’s third leadership hopeful — Gauteng provincial leader John Moodey — launched his campaign in Joburg, with the slogan "a workable alternative".

John Moodey
John Moodey

Moodey has been a DA member for 22 years and has led the DA in the province for four terms. His decision to stand could trigger a big shift in the party’s provincial dynamics, given his role as a DA power broker.

More than a week earlier, interim leader John Steenhuisen officially launched his bid to replace former leader Mmusi Maimane. Steenhuisen was elected temporary leader after Maimane dramatically quit in October.

Steenhuisen is seen as the favourite — given that he has a national profile, built as DA chief whip under Maimane.

But Mbali Ntuli — a DA member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, who is seen as a firebrand — was first out of the gate. She launched her campaign more than a fortnight ago under the banner "A new way for the DA".

Ntuli’s gambit has elicited much positive reaction from the chattering classes, especially those not in the DA. Whether this excitement will carry to the DA’s national congress in May is another question.

Mbali Ntuli
Mbali Ntuli

The deadline for nominations is early May. While the three candidates so far have outlined their plans to fix SA’s supine economy, it is their stance on race and redress of historical disadvantage which will be the defining issue of the leadership battle.

Among other issues that the DA will have to decide at a policy conference in April is whether it rejects race as a means of categorising disadvantage and whether it embraces nonracialism as opposed to multiracialism as a key principle.

But before the delegates decide in May who will lead the DA into the 2021 local government elections, will the contenders manage to avoid the mudslinging seen among the Democrats in the US and unite the party behind a common vision and purpose? To do so will be to take the high road.

But it’s likely the struggle for the soul of the DA will continue.