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The DA needs policies - or risk setting the next leader up for failure

OPINION

It is a three-horse race for the Democratic Alliance's (DA) interim federal leader position. Three men, Bonginkosi Madikizela, John Steenhuisen and Makashule Gana will contest for the position.

Chances are that the same men (and perhaps others as well) will join the race when the party looks for a permanent leader expected to be elected at the party’s next federal congress, provisionally set for April next year.

While the jostling for the leadership position is inevitable, it might be better for the party to spend its energies in the period leading to the congress debating what it wants to be before it decides on who must lead it.

There is consensus in and outside the party that its mixed messaging confused the voter causing it to lose votes to parties to the right and the left.

It was clear that the party was not sure where it stood on any number of issues. The only thing that was certain was that it wanted the ANC out, which is not much of a policy position.

The next leader will have to ensure that the voters are much clearer on what they expect from the party. The party must therefore be categorical about what it stands for.

If it does not do that, it sets the next leader up for failure, regardless of who it will be. That is why it must first decide what it is before it decides who it wants as its leader.

A leader’s qualifications to lead must be assessed relative to what the party is and what the leader must achieve to be deemed successful.

For example, a nation-building leader such as former President Nelson Mandela might be critical for a historically divided along race and class but now trying to forge a common nationhood. But such a leader could be totally useless if it is the year 2047 and national cohesion has been achieved and the challenge of the day is what to do with global warming or an economic meltdown.

In political leadership as in other areas of life, horses must be suitable for courses.

Electing leaders and then designing policies easily leads to the chosen leader turning out not to be fit for the chosen purpose. Sticking with the equestrian theme, choosing a party leader before deciding on party policies will be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

A party leader is its chief brand ambassador. Their very person must help a voter decide whether they want to invest their vote on the party or not.

That is why the person must be the embodiment of the policies.

Naturally, political life is such that there will be an evolution of ideas. Some ideas currently held close to the heart might be let go as times and societies change.

When that happens, the party must change again and find a leader who meets the demands of those times.
Political parties that fear change or are preoccupied by what others (usually their foes) will think more than their leaders, instead of crafting a clear vision for themselves and mandate for their leaders, deserve their place in the doldrums of history.

Change is the only constant. As economist John Maynard Keynes famously retorted when confronted with proof he was contradicting his own earlier opinion on the same matter. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury and The Witness.

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