On Monday, a debate between DA leadership rivals Mbali Ntuli and John Steenhuisen finally took place – but in line with new campaign rules, it could be viewed only by party members. This follows the federal council’s decision to crack down on external engagement with the DA leadership contest, to be settled by a vote at the national congress this weekend.
DA leadership contenders Mbali Ntuli and John Steenhuisen finally went head-to-head on Monday, in a debate which Ntuli has been requesting for months. But rather than being accessible to the South African public at large, as Ntuli had advocated, the debate was aired only to the 2,000 delegates eligible to cast votes at the DA’s federal congress on 31 October and 1 November.
Party members were also barred from discussing the debate on social media or in any public forum.
Daily Maverick understands that the two-hour debate was broadcast from the DA headquarters in Gardens, Cape Town, with both Steenhuisen and Ntuli physically present. Also present was debate moderator Xanthea Limberg, a Cape Town City councillor and member of the Cape Town City Council mayoral committee.
The debate reportedly began with a short statement from Steenhuisen and Ntuli in turn, followed by predetermined questions put to the two candidates by Limberg. The questions covered their experience, favoured policies, and how the candidates would handle particular situations if they arose.
After this, randomly selected questions were to be put to Steenhuisen and Ntuli.
The tone of the debate was described by a DA insider as “professional”, and free from personal attacks on either side.
A second two-hour debate between the two leadership candidates is to be held on Wednesday 28 October at 7pm, which will also be accessible only to congress delegates. A debate will take place on Tuesday 27 October between the four candidates – Anton Bredell, Annelie Lotriet, Refiloe Ntsekhe and Jacques Smalle – competing for three deputy federal chairperson positions.
There will be no debate held when it comes to the remaining electoral race, which sees the DA’s chief whip in Gauteng Mike Moriarty taking on incumbent Helen Zille for the post of chairperson of the party’s federal council.
The rules laid down by the DA’s federal council which precluded a public debate between Steenhuisen and Ntuli also made Ntuli’s attempt to hold a virtual “town hall” impermissible.
Ntuli had advertised a public engagement, to be held on 22 October, as an opportunity for “ALL South Africans to interrogate me”. But in terms of the new campaign regulations, such dialogues can only take place internally.
Supporters of Ntuli, a KwaZulu-Natal member of the provincial legislature challenging interim leader Steenhuisen, charged that the new rules would disadvantage Ntuli’s campaign from gaining a wider public momentum. Steenhuisen, who has been acting in the role of DA leader for more than 10 months, has the advantage of being far better known on the national stage.
The new rules were framed as protecting the interests of the party, with defenders pointing out that it is only the 2,000 delegates given access to the debates who have the right to vote on the leadership.
There has been speculation about darker motives afoot too, including the possibility that the party’s top officials could not risk the prospect of Steenhuisen being publicly outshone by his rival. But it seems likely that party officials were most concerned about the prospect of the famously outspoken Ntuli taking advantage of the public platform to air some dirty laundry.
During her campaign, Ntuli wrote an in which she railed against the politicisation of the DA’s disciplinary processes and accused the party’s Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela of laying a charge against her in exchange for receiving support in contesting an upcoming post. Madikizela has denied the claim.
Insiders and outsiders: The politicisation of the DA disciplinary processes
Party officials may have feared that Ntuli intended to “burn the house down” – as Madikizela described her campaign to the Sunday Times – via the forum of public debates, despite Ntuli’s repeated statements of loyalty to the party. She has said she has no intention of leaving the party if she loses the leadership race.
The outcome of the race is considered a foregone conclusion in terms of a Steenhuisen victory, though a number of party insiders told Daily Maverick that it might be closer than is generally predicted. Steenhuisen has won the public endorsement of most provincial DA leaders, and is reported to have been scrupulously working the phones to personally contact individual delegates to ask for their support.
Ntuli’s greatest disadvantage is thought to be that most of her 14 years’ work for the DA has taken place within her home province of KwaZulu-Natal, meaning that she is regarded as an unknown quantity to delegates in provinces such as the Western Cape.
The decision on the part of the DA’s council to hold debates internally is, of course, not unique to the party. Public debates between leadership candidates are not a feature of any South African political party to date, and the DA’s internal contestation process remains far more democratic and transparent than that of the ANC.
But as many commentators have pointed out, banning a public debate has meant that the DA is foregoing an opportunity to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to displaying its superior transparency.
Five years ago, when leadership hopeful Wilmot James (successfully) challenged rival Mmusi Maimane to a televised debate, pundits suggested that Maimane had no choice but to agree – or risk being labelled a coward, inept, or anti-democratic.
Those same labels are now hovering over the party as its congress approaches. DM