White-led opposition pledges to ‘rescue South Africa’ in watershed election

John Steenhuisen arriving at the final DA election rally in Johannesburg on Sunday
Opposition leader John Steenhuisen arriving at the final DA election rally in Johannesburg on Sunday - KIM LUDBROOK/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

With just days to go until South Africa’s closest election since the dawn of democracy three decades ago, John Steenhuisen took to the stage and vowed to rescue South Africa from its current government.

The final election rally by the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s biggest opposition party, was like the party itself: slick, well-organised and aggressive.

The 48-year-old leader told thousands of blue-clad supporters at a Johannesburg stadium on Sunday that the African National Congress (ANC) had for decades brought unemployment, corruption and misrule.

But help is coming, he told the multi-racial crowd: “On Wednesday we close the chapter on the ANC rule.”

This week’s election is on course to mark a watershed in South Africa’s post-apartheid history.

Mr Steenhuisen being greeted by supporters as he takes to the stage
Mr Steenhuisen told supporters that on Wednesday the party will 'close the chapter on the ANC rule' - JEMAL COUNTESS/UPI/SHUTTERSTOCK

The ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, has ruled outright since 1994. But this week it is expected to fail for the first time to get the 50 per cent vote share needed to govern alone. A new era of coalitions beckons.

Grim levels of unemployment and crime, crumbling public services, broken promises and the stain of corruption have all turned voters off the incumbents.

Faced with such a fatigued and tainted opponent, the DA, which has a reputation for punchy politics, business-friendly policies and competent administration at the local level, should have a golden opportunity.

Since 2009, the party has run Western Cape province – the only province not held by the ANC and the only one given a clean bill of health by the auditor general.

Public services in Western Cape are comparatively well run. The economy is creating jobs and attracting investment.

That is a far cry from other provinces, said 59-year-old Nomawethu Somgoyo, a DA voter originally from the Eastern Cape.

“It is terrible down there, where I come from,” she said. “No water sometimes for a month at a time, so no hygiene.

“People are hungry down there. They don’t have a life. That is what a vote for the ANC gives you there, at my home.”

Ms Somgoyo said she could not understand why more people were not choosing to support the DA in Johannesburg. “They don’t lie to us,” she added.

Democratic Alliance supporters chanting slogans during Sunday's rally
DA supporters chanting slogans during Sunday's rally - CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY

Despite such endorsements, and while the party has long been the second biggest in the country, polls show it has struggled to capitalise on disillusionment with the ANC.

Its predicted percentage of the vote hovers stubbornly in the mid-20s, while the ANC is expected to get somewhere around the mid-40s.

The DA’s struggle to gain wider popular support, observers say, is unsurprising. Thirty years after the end of apartheid, politics, like much else in South Africa, is still viewed through the prism of race.

The DA has struggled to shake off its reputation as the party of the well-off white minority, in a country where white governments once repressed the black majority.

“The DA have got some very capable politicians, there’s no doubt about that,” says one European diplomat.

“But I just doubt South Africa could elect someone white to lead the country at the moment.”

The DA has long been accused of promoting the interests of white, Asian and mixed-race people, in a country where those three groups together make up only 18 per cent of the population. Black Africans make up more than 81 per cent of the population.

A child holding the South African flag
A child holding the South African flag - CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY

The party traces its roots to the main white anti-apartheid party. Its leadership and its highest fliers are largely white, even if most of its supporters are black.

“Race is the main problem for the Democratic Alliance,” says Max du Preez, a newspaper editor and political analyst.

“It doesn’t have enough black leaders in its top ranks, and race in South Africa really matters given the long and dreadful history of apartheid.”

“If record of governance was the only consideration of how you should vote, the DA should get a two thirds majority and the ANC should get nothing. But that is not how it works.

“It is about symbolism, about history, and remembering the massive inequality in society. I would love to have a DA government, but it can’t be.”

‘People are looking beyond race’

The DA denies it has a problem with race. “People are looking beyond race towards competence, [the] ability to get things done and being able to deliver – that’s the game in town and that’s going to be the game in the next election,” Mr Steenhuisen has said.

The difficulty of conducting accurate opinion polls in South Africa means election forecasts have varied throughout the campaign. But the latest figures appear to show the ANC will indeed receive less than 50 per cent of the vote.

The shape of any coalition will depend on how far below the threshold the party slips. In the mid-40s, it may be able to get over the line by joining with a few smaller parties. Below that, it will need to look for a bigger partner – and make bigger concessions.

To broaden its appeal, the DA has formed its own broad coalition of smaller parties to bring down the ANC, although it is unclear the pact will hold if the ANC starts trying to poach partners.

While Mr Steenhuisen says the ANC must go, he has not excluded a post-election deal with the party, if that’s what it takes to keep the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters and former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe out of government.

“I’m not ruling out anything depending on what the election results are, going forward,” he said earlier this year.