Below is the acceptance speech, delivered in Durban, by newly-elected Federal Leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen. (Video at the bottom.)
Fellow South Africans,
I cannot think of a more fitting place from which to speak with you today than this beautiful City of eThekwini.
Twenty-one years ago, I made my way up the steps of the Durban City Hall for the very first time, as the city’s youngest ever elected councillor.
Back then – as today – many people asked me why I decided to go into politics.
My answer today is the same as it has always been: because I love my party, and I love my country.
I have travelled a long road in the DA.
I fought to fix potholes in the roads when I was a councillor.
I exposed corruption when I was a member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature.
I held presidents accountable as a member of Parliament.
But never in my wildest imagination did I believe I would one day lead this great party, the Democratic Alliance.
When I first became a DP activist at the age of nineteen, I did so because I knew it was a party with a proud history of fighting to give power to the people of South Africa.
A party that waged a lone battle in Parliament against the evil Apartheid regime.
A party that was instrumental in the drafting of our nation’s liberal democratic Constitution.
A party that grew from a handful of seats in Parliament to become the official opposition.
In the years since, the DA has grown to become a party that governs cities and municipalities across the country, as well as a province.
And it is a party that will one day be at the core of a national government that will fix and unlock the boundless potential of this country.
Thank you to each and every DA delegate, and to every member of my campaign teams across the country, for the trust you have placed in me.
I am deeply humbled by your support.
Thank you also to my wife, Terry, and to my family who are all here today in the city where I grew up.
I know that you have all sacrificed so much to help me pursue my dream of serving South Africa.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I would also like to extend my gratitude to my colleague in this leadership race.
Mbali, you did not make this an easy race. You fought me every step of the way, and you never gave up.
In doing so, you helped entrench a proud democratic tradition in our party: that we don’t anoint leaders here; we elect them.
We choose our leaders on the basis of their ideas, the content of their character and their potential to lead our party into new territory. Long may this democratic tradition continue.
However, I did not run to become the leader of the DA for its own sake.
I am here because I want to take the DA to greater heights in our fight for a country where each and every citizen has the power to build a dignified life.
Today, I stand before you even more determined and energized than I was when I first climbed those stairs in front of City Hall.
The task ahead of us will not be an easy one.
Our country is in serious trouble, and the stakes have never been higher.
When I look around me, I see despair and desperation; poverty and hunger. I see politicians blaming each other for what’s gone wrong, while people suffer.
All of this is happening despite the fact that the vast majority of South Africans are warm-hearted, honest and hard-working people trying to build a future for their families.
We are not a nation of thieves and criminals beset on destroying our country.
And yet, each and every one of us are exposed to thievery, criminality and decline on a daily basis.
As we journey through life, many of us no longer lift our heads to the horizon, because we are too scared of what we may see waiting in our future.
How is it that this nation of hard-working and peace-loving people knows neither prosperity nor peace?
The people of South Africa thought that democracy would put them in charge; that the people would govern. “All power to the people” was the cry.
Instead, people now feel further and further away from where power lies.
Over the past quarter of a century, you have been robbed of your destiny, your dreams held hostage to bureaucrats and central planners.
Just think of any problem you encounter in your daily life. At the root of it you will find a state that is utterly incapable and corrupt, yet absolutely hellbent on telling you what to do.
People don’t have electricity in their homes because government insists on a state monopoly for power generation.
People are poor because government crushes entrepreneurship, growth and job creation.
Excessive state control is the reason why people can no longer take the train to work, and why the government would rather spend the little tax money that’s left to fund an airline that we do not need.
People who are destitute and vulnerable may soon stop receiving social grants because corruption is bankrupting the state.
In every domain of your life, the incapable state is in the way of you getting ahead.
And what is the government’s solution to the problems caused by excessive state control?
Their solution is even more state control. Because the more the central planners fail, the more furiously the central planners plan.
And so we face the prospect of the state taking away private property.
In the future you may longer be able to take out private medical insurance.
And there is the very real fear that the pension you spent a lifetime saving will be taken from you.
No longer content with controlling you, the government now wants to own you. They are coming for your home, your health, and your savings.
The good news is that the people of South Africa are starting to reject state control.
People do not want to live a life of dependency on a failing and corrupt state. People are tired of being told what to do by rulers who only look out for themselves.
People want to stand on their own two feet as self-reliant, autonomous human beings. They want the power and the freedom to make their own choices and build a life they value.
This is what the DA will offer under my leadership. People power.
We will fight to give power and opportunities to every law-abiding, honest and hard-working citizen – regardless of their background – to build a life they value.
As the DA’s Constitution so eloquently puts it: “Our party is uniquely founded on faith in the South African people.”
People have sometimes had endless debates about the meaning of liberalism in today’s world.
But, for me, liberalism in its purest form is a commitment to give power to the people so that they can decide for themselves how to build lives of value.
This means building a capable state that protects citizens from harms like violent crime, and delivers the quality education, healthcare and other services that all people need to unlock opportunity.
We will take power away from the state and put it in the hands of the people, where it rightfully belongs.
The one thing that unites South Africans above all else is the desire to determine one’s own destiny.
We have many problems in this country. But the people of South Africa is not one of them.
There is nothing wrong with South Africa that cannot be fixed with all that is good about South Africans.
From the Uber driver in Soweto to the nurse in Mthatha and the farmer in Vredendal, the people yearn for a government that provides things like good schools, clean drinking water, a sustainable safety net for the vulnerable, and a reliable electricity supply so that they can pursue their own dreams in life.
They want a leg up from a caring and effective government, not handouts from a failing state.
And if you are looking for proof of just how committed this reinvigorated DA is to fighting on the side of the people rather than the state, look no further than the way we fought for you during the lockdown crisis.
When the national government tried to make it impossible for you to earn a living while their cadres embarked on a massive looting spree, the DA stood alone in defence of the people.
We were the first to reject the brutal hard lockdown.
We fought for justice for Collins Khoza and the dozens of other citizens brutalised and killed by the state.
We forced the state to keep soup kitchens open and allow hungry children to be fed.
In the Western Cape we built hospitals of hope, while other provinces sent people to hospitals of horror.
During the lockdown crisis, the DA offered practical and constructive alternatives which would have saved countless people from unnecessary suffering.
In the midst of the greatest crisis that has faced our country in a generation, the DA has revealed that our character is stronger than ever.
That we can be a powerful force for positive change when we implement solutions based on our principles.
But I must also be frank with you. We have made mistakes.
There were moments in our recent past when the DA looked for populist shortcuts and failed to offer clear solutions to the decline caused by state control.
There have been times when the DA failed to be a dependable ally in the people’s fight for power.
For a while, we lost sight of who we were and what we offer: clear, principled and decisive leadership.
Fortunately, mistakes don’t have to be fatal – provided you learn from them.
Over the past year, we embarked on a journey of introspection to fix that which was broken in our party.
Precisely because we had the courage to face up to our mistakes, I can tell you today that the days of breaking trust with South Africans are well and truly over.
Under my leadership, the DA will never again turn our back on our core principles.
We are a liberal party committed to non-racialism, a market economy, and a capable state that empowers citizens and cares for the vulnerable.
We have always been at our strongest – and achieved our best results – when we stood strong on these principles.
Our task now is to show how our policies can lift 13 million people out of unemployment and 30 million people out of poverty.
We are ready to show South Africa that another way is possible.
A better future beckons on the horizon under a DA government that will replace state control with people power.
A future marked by world-class service delivery in the towns and cities where we govern.
Schools staffed by dedicated professionals where every child is given the power to reach for the stars.
Hospitals that heal the sick and care for the most vulnerable members of society.
A rapidly growing economy that creates millions of jobs, because it is owned and controlled by the hard-working people of this country.
Empowerment that works for 30 million impoverished people, rather than for a predatory elite.
Going forward, we will evaluate every decision on the basis of a single question: does it give more power to politicians and bureaucrats, or does it give more power to the people?
Measuring every decision against this metric – and always choosing to empower the people rather than the state – holds the key to fixing South Africa.
The DA also has a clear roadmap for South Africa’s journey towards a horizon of hope.
Together, we must build a new majority in South African politics, with the DA at the heart of governments across the length and breadth of our beautiful country.
It can be done.
Just look to the City of Tshwane, where we took back control only two days ago.
As a result, the capital city of South Africa is once again governed by the Democratic Alliance.
Aside from giving us an opportunity to restore good governance in our country’s capital, our most recent victory in Tshwane offers two important lessons for the road ahead.
The first is that our opponents will stop at nothing to undermine our fight for people power.
Terrified by the prospect of losing control, the Gauteng provincial government used every dirty trick at their disposal to prevent the DA from delivering for the people of Tshwane.
The second lesson is that there simply are no shortcuts to victory.
It is only because we diligently fought the unconstitutional power grab in the courts for almost a year that we are now again able to bring change to the residents of Tshwane.
If we resolutely stick to our principles as we’ve recently done in Tshwane, there is a clear path to victory for the DA and people power for South Africa.
In addition to the dozens of municipalities where we already deliver world-class services as the party of government, another two dozen could have DA-led councils after the 2021 local election.
Five of them are in Gauteng, eleven are in the Northern Cape, and three are in the Eastern Cape.
We are also ready to unleash all of our firepower in the fight to get outright majorities in cities like Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.
A clear DA majority that avoids the need for coalitions is the best way to protect these metros from underhanded takeovers that disrupt and undermine service delivery.
By waging a principled fight for people power, we will reignite momentum and get the ANC out of power.
We’ve done it many times before. In Cape Town. In Midvaal. In the Western Cape. In Tshwane.
If we show that we are the party of people power, we can do it again. This time, we can do it all across South Africa.
Today, the DA alongside millions of ordinary South Africans, takes the first step on our journey towards a horizon of hope where power lies with the people, not with the corrupt and incapable state.
We know that the voyage will not be an easy one.
There will be plenty of obstacles, battles and mirages along the way.
But we also know that with each step we take, decline will be further behind us and hope will be nearer than ever.
I know that many of you are afraid of what the future holds. We can all feel the decline created by decades of ever-expanding state control.
I know that many South Africans are so scared that they stare only at the ground in front of them, just trying to put one foot in front of another.
But I stand before you today as the leader of a revitalised Democratic Alliance, to give you a reason to again lift your eyes up from the ground.
You are no longer alone.
History has proven that when hard-working and peace-loving South Africans from all backgrounds overcome our differences to unite in the quest for people power, there is no limit to what we can achieve.
Together, the DA and the people of this country can take power back from the corrupt and incapable state that stole it away.
It does not matter which part of the country you come from, what language you speak, what background you have, or what community you belong to.
If you want to live in a country where you have the security and opportunities to build a life of value for you and your family, you have a home in the DA.
If you have been stuck in the unemployment queue for years, you have a home in the DA.
If you are tired of the corrupt politicians who have stolen your future, you have a home in the DA.
If you want your children to receive a quality education, you have a home in the DA.
If you are tired of a state that spends more on VIP security for politicians than on protecting the farmers who feed us all, you have a home in the DA.
We can win this battle to take power back from the state if as many people as possible rally to the cause.
Our first opportunity to begin wresting power away from those who seek to control us will come in less than one year from today, during the 2021 local government elections.
That is why I am asking you to get out there and register to vote DA in your local municipality.
Talk to your friends and relatives, who have given up on our country, about the DA’s vision for people power over state control.
Spread the word that the days of indecision and mixed-messaging are well and truly over, and that our country can be fixed if we elect a courageous DA government that will give power back to the people.
From this first step we take together today and during every mile of the journey that lies ahead, the DA proudly walks side-by-side with the people of this country.
Not a day longer will you have to walk with shoulders slumped.
Because now the DA walks alongside you – the people of South Africa – with our chins held high and our eyes focused – not on the many perils that confront us today – but on the horizon of hope that beckons tomorrow.