White Politician Poised for Power Faces Hurdle in South Africa

Nine months ago, John Steenhuisen, who leads South Africa’s second-largest political party, the Democratic Alliance, stood before news cameras and signed an agreement not to work with the long-governing party, the African National Congress.

“So help me God,” Mr. Steenhuisen said, raising his right hand and chuckling.

But when the African National Congress failed to secure a governing majority in last week’s election and on Thursday invited its political opponents to join forces in a government of national unity, Mr. Steenhuisen moved to the front of the pack of political leaders looking to work with the party he had sworn off.

He and the Democratic Alliance are now plowing ahead with the most important political negotiations in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994 and have drafted a document laying out their core principles for joining a government with the African National Congress, or A.N.C.

The governing party’s slide — taking just 40 percent of the vote, ending three decades of dominance — has left Mr. Steenhuisen, 48, standing at the brink of his political dreams. As head of the party that took second place, with nearly 22 percent of the vote, Mr. Steenhuisen seems likely to get a leading role in the next government, political analysts say.

But even as he is rising, Mr. Steenhuisen must navigate the tricky third-rail of South African society: race.

Mr. Steenhuisen is white, and the national leadership of his party is predominantly white. In a country that is 80 percent Black, many still view him and his center-right party, which is favored by many in big business and the private sector, as champions of white interests. Political analysts attribute this in part to the unresolved trauma of apartheid but also to the Democratic Alliance’s sometimes flip and clumsy handling of racial issues.

“There’s perceptions,” Mr. Steenhuisen said in an interview last year. “One of them is, ‘Oh, the D.A.’s going to bring back apartheid.’ I think there’s a trust deficit still that exists around the race issue.”

Mr. Steenhuisen has cut a sharp path to power, with charm and a quick wit but also a bullishness that some say teeters on arrogance. He started as an ambitious 22-year-old council member in the country’s third-largest city and rose to the top post in the Democratic Alliance, which grew out of an anti-apartheid party led by white South Africans.

The Democratic Alliance as it is known today was formed in 2000 with the merger of multiple parties. By that point it was already the second-largest party in the country, in part because it attracted white voters after the disbanding of the National Party, which led the apartheid government.

Over the years, the Democratic Alliance was able to court the country’s racial minorities — people who are white, Indian or colored, a multiracial classification. The party also grew its base with Black voters, particularly those who believed that the A.N.C.’s efforts to undo racial disparities failed to empower Black South Africans.

Today, the Democratic Alliance’s biggest selling point is less corruption and better financial management in the cities and the lone province, the Western Cape, where it governs.

Some within the A.N.C. vehemently oppose bringing the Democratic Alliance into a governing coalition, saying that the party has opposed efforts to undo the racial disparities that still linger from apartheid, especially in wealth, land ownership and employment. Opponents also accuse the Democratic Alliance of peddling racism.

Some A.N.C. members even started a petition to stop a coalition with the Mr. Steenhuisen’s party, taking issue with its opposition to laws supporting affirmative action, universal health care and land redistribution. They also posted an image of a seven-year-old tweet by one of the Democratic Alliance’s top leaders, Helen Zille, that attempted to put a positive spin on colonialism.

“For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.,” Ms. Zille wrote.

Mr. Steenhuisen took control of the Democratic Alliance five years ago, replacing its first Black leader, Mmusi Maimane, whom he had worked alongside as the opposition’s chief whip in Parliament. Mr. Maimane’s resignation after the Democratic Alliance’s disappointing electoral showing in 2019, as well as the departures of several other prominent Black members before and after him, has fueled the narrative of a party hostile toward Black people.

In a tell-all memoir published this year, Mr. Maimane accused Mr. Steenhuisen of thwarting his efforts to change the party into one that would attract more Black voters.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Steenhuisen declined to comment and said that he was unavailable for an interview.

Mr. Steenhuisen said in the interview last year that he believed that “race plays a role” in South African society. But he differed with the A.N.C. on how to address racial disparities.

He said that taking a colorblind approach to tackling poverty would ultimately uplift Black South Africans. The governing party’s approach to racial redress has mostly helped politically connected Black elites, he said.

Mr. Steenhuisen’s party has proposed dropping affirmative action policies, promoting more private sector involvement in state services like electricity, increasing some welfare grants and lowering taxes on certain food items.

But notably, the principles the Democratic Alliance laid out for its negotiations with the A.N.C. did not include ending racial preference programs.

Critics say the Democratic Alliance does play on race to win support, if sometimes as dog whistles.

For a protest last year against an A.N.C.-backed law requiring some employers to meet racial quotas in hiring, the Democratic Alliance bused in residents from colored townships to march through downtown Cape Town.

“The Black people are getting jobs, and our coloreds don’t get any,” said Reneé Ferris, who attended the demonstration and said she was looking for work as a cleaner.

Mr. Steenhuisen, who grew up in the coastal city of Durban, has said that financial challenges prevented him from finishing college.

He joined his hometown council in 1999 and was quick to volunteer for site visits to inspect city infrastructure, or to hand out leaflets at weekend rugby matches, said Gillian Noyce, who served alongside him.

By age 30, Mr. Steenhuisen became the head of the Democratic Alliance’s caucus in the City Council, leading more seasoned lawmakers. Three years later, he led the party in the province, KwaZulu-Natal, and in just two more years, he was elected to the national Parliament.

He cultivated relationships with colleagues and constituents alike, and several of his critics and champions said he has a distinct ability to read a room. He hosted Christmas parties at his home and organized after-work drinks each week, Ms. Noyce recalled.

But in 2010, it became public that Mr. Steenhuisen had been cheating on his wife of 10 years with a party spokeswoman, who was married to another member of the party. Mr. Steenhuisen resigned as party leader in KwaZulu Natal Province. He is now married to the woman with whom he had the affair. In a country accustomed to political scandal, the episode did not thwart Mr. Steenhuisen’s rise.

He has fought bruising battles within the party, garnering a reputation as someone who brooks no dissent, former members said.

Three days after last week’s election, Mr. Steenhuisen was in a Zoom meeting with the leaders of several smaller parties who also signed the pledge last year not to work with the A.N.C. Some of them scolded the Democratic Alliance over reports that it would not uphold its commitment to the pact, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.

It seemed, to Mr. Steenhuisen’s critics, that at the whiff of power, he and his party were ready to abandon principles that he had advocated.

“Nobody will trust them in the future again,” the leader of a small party said of the Democratic Alliance.

“With respect, you speak with no authority about the D.A. and what it is going to do or not going to do,” Mr. Steenhuisen shot back. “You need to understand that very, very clearly.”

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