John Steenhuisen: ‘Big Five’ Ideas to Get South Africa Working for Growth
DA Leader John Steenhuisen delivered the following keynote address at the RMB Morgan Stanley Investor Conference in Cape Town today. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, For those of you who have travelled here from out of town, welcome to beautiful Cape Town, where spring is apparently still deciding whether it has arrived or not. This […]
DA Leader John Steenhuisen delivered the following keynote address at the RMB Morgan Stanley Investor Conference in Cape Town today.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,
For those of you who have travelled here from out of town, welcome to beautiful Cape Town, where spring is apparently still deciding whether it has arrived or not.
This is par for the course for the Mother City. Traditionally we spend the entire September welcoming spring, only to bid it farewell a few days later.
But fear not, before the month is out, Cape Town will be basking in warm, sunny spring weather. Because that kind of change is inevitable – it cannot be held back for long. Much like another kind of inevitable change which I would like to speak about this morning.
But first I want to thank the organisers of the RMB Morgan Stanley Big Five Investor Conference for inviting me to speak here this morning, because I think it’s important to hear a slightly different perspective to most of the conversations you will be having over the next two days.
I won’t pretend today to be an expert in your field, because I am sure there are more than enough of you already in this room. I also won’t bore you to death with a long-winded account of South Africa’s many challenges and setbacks to getting our economy going.
If you’re sitting in this room, chances are you know more than most about the obstacles to investment, growth and job creation in this country. But you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t also acutely aware of the tremendous potential that lies in South Africa.
So, we all know what is wrong with the picture in South Africa, and I am pretty sure most of us would agree on where we would like our country to end up. But what is perhaps missing from this conversation is how we get from here to there.
And that is where I can offer you a unique perspective, and perhaps also give you a little reassurance that change has never been more possible and, indeed, more imminent.
This has become the topic of most of my conversations of late. I travel a great deal around South Africa and I speak to an incredibly varied audience. In one day, I could have conversations with suburban ratepayers, small-scale fishermen, desperately poor communities and then a room such as this.
And in the past, these engagements would be quite distinctly different, but recently there has been a perceptible change in the national conversation. Across the whole spectrum of communities and interest groups, people are starting to ask the same question: What happens after the ANC?
For the first time in almost three decades, South Africans from all walks of life are starting to imagine a different future for our country, and this takes a little getting used to. There is something about being stuck in a bad situation or an abusive relationship for a long time that robs you of your ability to dream bigger.
You stop thinking about possibilities out there, and you restrict your hopes and dreams to slightly better versions of this bad situation. Your horizons shrink.
That’s what happened to South Africans these past three decades. We’ve been stuck in an abusive relationship with our government, and for the longest time there seemed no realistic way out.
But in fact, not just the past three decades. Because for the past 74 years, South Africa has only known one-party rule: forty-six years under the Nats followed by 28 years under the ANC, during which time both these parties held such strong majorities that they lost all fear of the voters.
That’s not a healthy democracy. When you don’t fear being voted out, the worst elements make their way to the front and centre of a governing party, and that party is then soon transformed into something else entirely – something more akin to a syndicate that extracts and extorts.
Because our democracy has never been properly tested, we have not known true accountability for generations, and the dire situation in our country can be directly attributed to this.
We’re theoretically an upper-middle-income country with well established infrastructure, a wealth of natural resources and sound financial institutions. We ought to be doing well, but we’re not.
It is unthinkable that half our population should live below the upper-bound food poverty line, or that almost half of those who want to work cannot find jobs and that over 27 million people receive some form of social grant every month.
It is unthinkable, given our standing on this continent and in the world, that we cannot even keep the lights on, or that our basic education is ranked among the very worst in the world, or that we have some of the highest murder and rape numbers in the world.
It is unthinkable that people – many of them young children – should die from malnutrition in South Africa in 2022. And yet they do.
All of these things happen because the normal checks and balances in a healthy democracy – the fear every politician should have for the voter – have been absent for a very long time.
In this absence, greed, complacency and indifference have flourished, and poor South Africans have paid the price.
Ten, maybe even five years ago, all these things – the load-shedding, the crime rate, the government corruption, the sky-high unemployment – would have been accepted with a sense of inevitability and resignation.
This resignation would’ve been punctured by brief moments of hope as a new saviour within the ruling party emerged and was anointed by the media, but soon that too would come crashing down.
But something has now changed in our society. South Africans are increasingly refusing to accept these failures. They are no longer willing to normalise the abnormal.
A growing resentment towards this uncaring, corrupt government has stirred our nation’s democratic spirit. And combined with this there is now evidence, in towns and cities across the country, that life doesn’t only carry on after the ANC, it improves.
And this is very important. If we’re talking about the biggest transition in decades, people need to see that this transition can be made, and they need to see that it is worth making.
When the DA took control of the City of Cape Town back in 2006 – first through a fraught and shaky seven-party coalition, but ultimately with an outright majority – we saw this as an opportunity to showcase the benefits of electoral change and the power of the vote.
We had morphed from an opposition party to a party of government, and this would surely give us the advantage of demonstration.
But it proved hard to translate our successes down here in Cape Town into a message that resonated across the country. Even when we took control of the Western Cape provincial government several years later and made immediate delivery inroads, the needle was slow to move.
Clear improvements in service delivery, job creation, education, healthcare and investment in the local economy – not to mention the immediate swing to clean audits by the Auditor-General – were still seemingly not enough to stir voters elsewhere.
We were still described as a regional party with limited reach and limited appeal.
But then 2016 happened. Urban South Africa took a significant step away from the ANC, and this ushered in the beginning of the coalition era in local politics. Suddenly, millions of South Africans – particularly in Gauteng – woke up under a local government that wasn’t the ANC.
The DA went from governing one province, one metro and a number of municipalities, to leading coalition or minority governments for millions of residents across three new metros.
As you probably know, this has not been an easy ride at all. Those early coalition or minority governments were extremely vulnerable to the whims of small parties who all considered themselves kingmakers, and the governments of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay became political footballs, passed back and forth.
But valuable lessons were learnt, and our current metro coalition governments are doing an incredible job under very trying circumstances.
As a party, we have come a long way since 2016, and we are becoming more and more adept at managing these fraught coalitions. This is experience that will stand us in good stead when we have to do the same at national level.
Admittedly, the DA had a small hiccup in the 2019 national and provincial elections. We lost our messaging discipline, we strayed from our principles and we tried to be everything to everyone at once.
But we have spent the past three years correcting our course, reconnecting with voters, re-committing to our principles and focusing on the next big challenge: to bring the ANC below 50% nationally and to stand at the centre of the coalition government that replaces them.
I am delighted to say that we are very much back and on track.
We’ve known this for some time from our own internal polling efforts, as well as from our recent form in by-elections, but we have now had this confirmed, in no uncertain terms, by a comprehensive independent piece of research into South Africa’s political landscape.
Last month the Social Research Foundation published the results of a poll it conducted among more than 3,000 randomly selected and representative registered voters. It found that the ANC’s support, nationally, was hovering around 50%, which is seven percentage points down from its 2019 result.
It also found that the DA had bounced back to 25%, a full five percentage points up from our 2019 result.
That gap between the two parties is steadily shrinking, and it is clear that our next national and provincial election in 2024 is going to produce one of two outcomes: either a DA-led coalition government or an ANC-led coalition government.
What this poll also showed – and this was overlooked in most media reports – was that the DA has, for the first time, overtaken the ANC in South Africa’s urban areas. At 37%, the DA now enjoys the strongest support in South Africa’s metros, while the ANC has dropped down to 33%.
While this certainly has to do with the ANC’s dismal track record in government, as well as the DA’s governance successes, there is another factor that has contributed greatly to this swing in support, and that is the element of diversity.
The DA’s voter support is, by far, the most diverse of any party in the country. The same SRF poll showed that the DA’s support is almost evenly split among black, coloured and white voters, at 33%, 32% and 31% respectively.
By comparison, almost every other party in the country has an entirely homogenous voter base.
Given the incredible diversity of South Africa’s cities, it is not surprising that the one party that attracts a diverse voter base is also now the largest party in the metros.
But this hasn’t always been an easy ride. Politics in this country can be a very tough business. This is particularly true when you are trying to build a rational and sensible centre in the political landscape.
The populists on either side have it far easier, because it is simpler to tailor your message for one homogenous group and to deal only with emotive, divisive themes.
It’s easy to only incite anger and resentment. It’s easy to only stoke anti-foreigner sentiment. It’s easy to only play to the fears of minorities.
What’s hard is to land, among all that noise, a message of clean delivery, responsible governance and the opportunities for all that come with a rising tide. Yet that is what we have to do. The DA has to be the grown-up in the room.
But the upshot to all of this is that when our message does finally cut through the noise, it resonates with people in a meaningful way, and we end up with genuine organic support that reflects a diversity of South Africans who care about ideas more than they care about identity.
That is why we have become the biggest party in urban South Africa, and that is why our vision and our policies will form the bedrock of a re-imagined South Africa and a rejuvenated economy.
We’re under no illusions about the task that lies ahead. For the foreseeable future, this reimagined South Africa will be run by coalition governments at national, provincial and local level. And as we have seen over the past seven years, this can be incredibly challenging.
But, importantly, these coalitions do work. Despite all the disruptions and the threats to destabilise them, our new coalition governments in the three Gauteng metros have racked up some remarkable delivery successes in the past year.
From thousands more Metro Police Officers on the streets to increased budgets for infrastructure maintenance, new affordable housing projects, ambitious plans to end load-shedding, and improved credit ratings, these metros are proof that a coalition alternative to the ANC is a viable option.
These coalitions – and particularly the ongoing attempts to disrupt them – also offer voters a valuable insight into what happens with their vote once they have offered it to one of the many smaller or new parties on the scene.
If you voted a certain way to get rid of the ANC, you need to know whether your chosen party will end up co-opted back into the ANC’s scheme again. So in some ways, the coalition governments in the metros are a dress rehearsal for a national coalition government, allowing voters to make any necessary changes by 2024.
These governments afford us an opportunity to demonstrate that life after the ANC goes on, and that coalitions can and do work in service of the people.
How we manage these coalitions over the next two years will be critical to our chances of success in 2024.
But it is also critical that South Africans realise that this may be our one and only shot at it.
The speed at which our country is unraveling, and the desperation of the ANC to keep its hands in the cookie jar until the very last second, could mean that 2024 will not only be our best-ever opportunity for change, but also our only one.
And that is why we are going to have to invest everything in this one shot. This is our Moon Shot.
In May of 1961, President John F Kennedy declared in Congress that the US nation should… “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”.
He knew that this goal was achievable, but he also knew that it would require an extraordinary and single-minded effort. And so he focused an entire nation on achieving it.
Sadly, Kennedy didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong step from the lunar module onto the surface of the moon on 20 July 1969, but if he hadn’t made that bold prediction nine years earlier, it would not have happened.
He got a nation to believe that it was possible, and that’s why it was.
That is what we have to do over the next two years if we want to save South Africa. We have to get a nation to believe that it’s possible. That’s why 2024 is our Moon Shot election.
I assure you today, everyone in the DA is up for that challenge. We all know what is at stake and what it will take. We do what we do because we love our country and we know it can be saved.
Just like each of you, I want nothing more than to see South Africa get back on its feet so that we can finally realise the enormous untapped potential of this country.
I want to see a South Africa where every woman or man who wants to work, can have the dignity of meaningful employment and not have to scrape by on a tiny social grant every month.
I want to see a South Africa where no child ever has to die or suffer because there is no food in the house.
I want to see a South Africa where every self-inflicted obstacle to growth and progress has been cast away in the dustbin of history. No more BEE enrichment scams. No more ill-considered National Health Insurance. No more Property Expropriation without Compensation.
Just common sense economic policy to open up the economy, common sense energy interventions to end load-shedding, common sense labour laws to encourage job creation, and a lot of good old-fashioned accountability.
Mostly, this will require a government that knows where its intervention is required, and where it should simply get out of the way of those who know better how to create jobs, how to provide services, or how to generate electricity.
A government that can get this balance right will take South Africa from where it is today to where we all want it to be.
And I assure you, the DA is ready to step into that role and be that government.