DA support in freefall, two new surveys show

Interim party leader John Steenhuisen has disputed the polls, saying the party is still at the same support levels it achieved in the 2019 national election.

Two new national surveys show that support for the DA is in freefall as the official opposition party battles to rebuild itself after the resignation of party leader Mmusi Maimane and Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba in October 2019.

The party is losing both white and black supporters, new research by Ipsos and Citizen Surveys provided to Daily Maverick has shown.

The Ipsos survey, based on a national and representative sample of respondents, shows that the DA’s support is at 13% while Citizen Surveys has found that interim party leader John Steenhuisen has only a 15% favourability rating. Maimane had more than double this approval rating when he quit after an internal review by party grandés said he should resign after a poor showing in the 2019 national election.

Citizen Surveys uses party leader approval ratings as a proxy for the party’s favourability.

“The DA is facing some serious issues right now,” says Reza Omar, the research director of Citizen Surveys. He said the 2021 municipal elections are make or break for the DA. His research showed that each time the DA lost a leader such as Patricia de Lille and then Maimane, it lost support. “When De Lille left, she took a portion of support with her; then Maimane took a (further) portion,” said Omar.

“The DA is going to pieces. They have a big job in reorganising themselves,” said Ipsos director Mari Harris in an interview with Daily Maverick. The ANC, for its part, was stabilising its support at between 55% and 57%, according to those polled, she said.

Not true, says Steenhuisen

In a press conference on Sunday 23 February after its first federal council since the October 2019 bust-up, Steenhuisen disputed the stats:

“Internal polling shows our support at the same level (of 20% which the party won in the 2019 national election). This notion that our support is tanking is not true,” said Steenhuisen.

The federal council spent the weekend laying out the architecture of its forthcoming policy conference (3-4 April 2020 at the Birchwood conference centre in Johannesburg) and its elective congress (30-31 May 2020 at the Gallagher conference centre in Midrand) where it will decide policy and elect leaders to take it into the local government election in 2021 where it has to make up lost ground.

The party said it was expecting a highly contested race for all its top positions.

Steenhuisen will run for leader, along with KwaZulu-Natal member of the provincial legislature Mbali Ntuli and Gauteng leader John Moody — others may enter the race before the nominations cut-off date of 9 May. Federal Council chairperson Helen Zille could face off against Gauteng provincial chairperson Mike Moriarty — others may enter that race too. Other big national jobs will also be contested.

A new majority by 2024

Steenhuisen said the DA planned to build a new majority by 2024 by reaching across the political aisle to other parties (or cohorts within parties) which shared its values.

At the same time, he said the party would build its strategy on the belief that “The ANC is never going to fix SA and the DA is the only party (which can).” While he acknowledged Ramaphosa over the president’s apology for the way in which ANC MPs had trivialised gender-based violence by questioning whether the EFF leader Julius Malema beat up his wife, Mantwa, Steenhuisen also said Ramaphosa had failed to deal with the big issues facing the country.

“The President has blown his last opportunity,” he said.

(Ramaphosa, by contrast, has a 62% approval rating in the same Ipsos poll.)

The DA will seek far greater autonomy for the Western Cape, the only province it runs — the party had hoped by now to be governing Gauteng and Northern Cape, but fell far short of that goal in the 2019 election.

Now the party wants to shore up its Western Cape support which also took hits from the Freedom Front Plus, to which the party lost most voters.

The DA wants autonomy for the Western Cape in power procurement (the provincial government is heading to court in a quest to buy its own electricity), it also wants to take over the commuter rail service (which Prasa has run into the ground) and to have greater autonomy in policing.

Schweizer-Reyneke still a festering sore

The North West municipal ward of Schweizer-Reyneke is the unlikely symbol of the party’s difficulties.

In a recent by-election in the council of Mammusa in which Schweizer-Reyneke falls, the exodus of DA voters to the Freedom Front Plus showed no sign of letting up — that party took 51% of the votes in the ward in a January 2020 by-election to the DA’s 14%.

At the same time, the party’s youth leader Luyolo Mphithi’s future remains in the balance after the party completed, but did not make a final decision on an internal inquiry.

Mphithi is in hot water for tweeting without evidence his critique of a photograph by teacher Elana Barkhuizen whose photographs of an apparently racially divided class turned into a Twitter and then real-world race row.

In later photographs, her learners were sitting in mixed groups. She was suspended, but later returned to her class among hugs and kisses after an investigation showed that the accusations she faced, including by Mphithi, were false.

Now Mphithi’s fate is also being held up as a further barometer of whether the DA is purging black leaders whose politics are no longer welcome in the party. The DA’s social media stance on Barkhuizen is regarded as a key factor in the exodus of white voters.

Race-blind values document goes out for public comment

To regain this support base, the DA wants to go race-blind, or what it defines as non-racial (the definition of non-racial in the Constitution is not race-blind). This is a position supported by Zille and by the newly (re)installed head of policy Gwen Ngwenya.

Ngwenya has written a values document setting out a new set of principles for the DA as it rebuilds itself. These include values such as an open society, an opportunity society and positions on diversity and transformation that steer clear of a racial determinant.

“Non-racialism is the rejection of race as a way to categorise and treat people, particularly in legislation,” says the values document from which all other policies will be built.

It continues: “The assumption that one’s ‘race’ represents people who think, feel, or have the same experience of shared events, based on their physical appearance, is false.”

The party will not support black empowerment (as it has done before) nor any method of racial definition as a proxy for access to opportunities.

That policy position in the values document is being opened for comment by the broader public and by all structures of the party ahead of the April policy conference where all its policy positions will be decided.

This week (on 28 February), the party will release its economic policy documents.

At the press conference on Sunday 23 February, acting federal chairperson Ivan Meyer said he was responsible for “policy alignment” which suggests a tussle in the party about who is policy czar amid clearly differing positions in the party’s leadership.