DA's polling shows Phoenix posters may have backfired on party, Steenhuisen
Sources said that internal party polling had shown that it was on an upward trajectory before the row, which forced the party's KwaZulu-Natal leadership to take down banners in the predominantly Indian suburb.
JOHANNESBURG - Recent ructions in the Democratic Alliance (DA) over the Phoenix poster debacle could cost it dearly in the local government elections in three weeks' time.
Sources said that internal party polling had shown that it was on an upward trajectory before the controversial campaign, which forced the party's KwaZulu-Natal leadership to take down banners in the predominantly Indian suburb that read: "The ANC called you racists", followed by another board reading: "The DA calls you heroes".
The posters referred to an incident after the looting and riots in July, during which residents formed vigilante groups to stop people from entering their neighbourhood and were alleged to have killed a number of black people in the process.
One insider said that the Phoenix posters could have been an attempt by the party to shore up some more support after figures showed that its support had stagnated.
Party leader John Steenhuisen recently told journalists that the party was expected to receive just over 20.7% of the vote, down from the 24% he told the Daily Maverick three weeks ago. This is a significant drop from the almost 27% the party had in 2016 and could result in Steenhuisen's detractors gunning for him in the same way that opponents of his predecessor, Mmusi Maimane, used the bad elections outcome in 2019 to get rid of him.
On top of that, Steenhuisen's performance in the party's internal polls was poor, with very few voters recognising him as DA leader, party insiders have said. There are also complaints from within the party itself that he had not acted firmly enough on the Phoenix issue, while the leaked letter by Mike Waters, who resigned as the party's Ekurhuleni elections campaign manager following the removal of the posters, could show Steenhuisen up as struggling to maintain party discipline.
Steenhuisen's low recognition amongst voters contrasts with that of African National Congress (ANC) president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who previous polls have shown had the support of just over 60% of voters, while his party came in at just over 40%.
Although party leaders could not comment or reveal the party's internal polling information, Steenhuisen told Eyewitness News that he was "comfortable about where we are at this stage of the campaign" and that his reception on the ground had been good.
"This is my first election as leader and name recognition always improves with every election," he said. "This has been the case with every single DA leader."
He said that the DA was focussing on its campaign and message of service delivery.
"My experience is that the poster issue is an obsession of the media rather than voters and I guess the election result will answer your question better," he said.
Preliminary figures have shown that registration turnout in a number of ANC strongholds has been at a historic low, which could work in the DA's favour.
Elections analyst Wayne Sussman told a South African Jewish Board of Deputies webinar on the local elections on Tuesday night that, if ANC turnout was subdued, this could benefit the DA, "even though they are in a much weaker position than they were at this stage in 2016".
He said: "They were out of the starting blocks first, they had their posters up first, and they had the try-line out in front of them, but, excuse the rugby metaphor, it's been a knock-on after knock-on in the last week and one will need to see if they can turn the ship around with 20 days to go before the election."
Sussman said that the DA was still likely to be the biggest or second-biggest party in the metros.
"I must admit we continue to have a trust issue, even before this Phoenix mess, the electorate just doesn’t trust us and that is the work we know we have to do, regaining trust bit by bit," a party insider told Eyewitness News.
He said that Steenhuisen presented a problem because most voters did not know who he was in spite of his track record in Parliament.
Steenhuisen became acting party leader at the end of 2019 after Maimane stepped down, and he was elected into the position permanently last year during a lockdown conference.
"The last time we experienced such was with Mmusi in 2014," the party insider said, adding that more advertising was thrown at the problem. This year, there was simply not enough money to do the same.
Another insider said that Steenhuisen could be shown the door in the same way that Maimane was following the 2019 elections, but others said that there was no leader stronger than Steenhuisen that could replace him.