When DA chief John Steenhuisen unexpectedly announced on May 1 that he had arrived in Ukraine for a “fact-finding” visit, he said the reason for his trip was because “to era of fake news and propaganda”, only by assessing a situation firsthand can one “really know what is going on”.
Said Steenhuisen: “We owe it to the Ukrainian people to tell the unfiltered truth about what is happening there.
But anyone tuning in Monday morning to hear Steenhuisen “brief the nation” – in the words of the prosecutor – upon his return to South Africa would have heard surprisingly few facts. Steenhuisen’s public report lasted a mere 15 minutes, with no opportunity for questions from the media.
The disconnect between the grandiose terms in which Steenhuisen’s mission was originally framed and the superficial nature of his report makes it seem like the DA chief may have been advised to turn the page on his expedition rather quickly.
It would be an overstatement to say that Steenhuisen’s trip was a public relations disaster. He received a quite complimentary editorial of Sunday time for having established himself as “a man of action” unlike President Cyril Ramaphosa. News24 editor Adrian Basson suggested that the opportunity to “show political acumen and moral leadership” might well play out for Steenhuisen down the line in terms of his personal political ambitions.
But it’s hard to imagine that the trip had a net positive effect on the party that Steenhuisen leads. Although social media is rarely a reliable indicator of broader political sentiment, those expressing the most positive views of Steenhuisen’s trip appear to be DA loyalists. At the same time, the visit has also come under heavy criticism from self-proclaimed AD supporters who support Russia’s condemnation but have urged Steenhuisen to focus his energy instead on the myriad problems at the within the borders of his country of origin. .
The episode is highly unlikely to attract new voters previously opposed to the DA, while it appears to have angered some existing DA voters and perhaps hardened the attitudes of those already predisposed to dislike the left.
It is important to note that the vast majority of criticism came not from support for Russia, but either from the aforementioned frustration that Steenhuisen’s energies would be better spent on domestic issues, or from anger at the government. Steenhuisen’s perceived arrogance in presenting himself as the ambassador of “the majority of South Africans”.
In reality, the view of the majority of South Africans on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is totally uncertain. It’s a safe bet that most are too preoccupied with more immediate and direct crises to think about them seriously, if at all. As a number of political analysts have pointed out, there is no evidence that any foreign policy issues play a significant role in South Africans’ electoral choices.
However, the sentiment that Steenhuisen has cast himself as the only true spokesperson for South Africa has clearly not worked well – and does little to dispel the reputation of “white arrogance” that the party has been acquired in certain circles.
Steenhuisen did himself a disservice by suggest in a social media post from Ukraine that the impact of the war was already being felt in the rise in the “price of crisps in South African school sweets”. It was a comment clearly intended to reinforce his claim that “Ukraine’s problems are also our problems”, but an oddly chosen example: the one that instantly earned him the new Twitter nickname “Slapchips Steenhuisen” and a barrage of teasing.
Some of the attacks directed at Steenhuisen have been crude or misinformed. It is not uncommon for world opposition politicians to make such visits; nor is it true that Steenhuisen was invisible at the site of local disasters like the KwaZulu-Natal floods, as some critics have claimed.
But the DA leader scored an undeniable own goal by opening himself and his party to the tsunami of whataboutery that will follow this trip: whenever conflict breaks out in an area not involving Europeans whites – and many are already raging – you can expect Steenhuisen to ask why he doesn’t spend six days tweeting video messages from this site.
There are indications that the tour was arranged quite last minute and as such may not have been particularly considered in advance. Daily Maverick contacted the Brenthurst Foundation – revealed by Carien du Plessis of funding Steenhuisen’s mission – to ask why he didn’t bring a cross-party group of MPs to Ukraine rather than just the DA leader.
Brenthurst Foundation director Greg Mills (a Daily Maverick contributor) replied that the idea was mooted, “but given the timeframe and complexity of the logistics, it was not feasible on this occasion”.
Mills added: “Maybe in the future.”
There are those who have pointed out that since the trip was privately funded, taking nothing from either the South African state coffers or even the DA’s own resources, the criticisms leveled at Steenhuisen are unjustified and unjust. Seen in this light, the reasoning goes, Steenhuisen’s visit should be viewed no differently than any other private South African citizen who decides to travel to Ukraine to assess the situation.
This argument would be more valid if, as mentioned, Steenhuisen had not repeatedly presented himself as visiting on behalf of the South African people as a whole. In his report, the AD chief said he had said the same thing to everyone he met in Ukraine: “I pledged South Africa’s support for their cause.”
As convinced as Steenhuisen may be of the correctness of his position, and as likely as the anti-Russian stance is morally justified, Steenhuisen simply has no authority to make such sweeping statements. This kind of hubris gets on people’s backs and could easily have been avoided with more restrained language.
But there is another concern, which is that Steenhuisen’s mission could backfire more seriously. The opposition has every right to point out the shortcomings of the ruling party in terms of foreign policy or any other issue. This is one of its main functions. But while Steenhuisen sincerely hopes to persuade the ANC government to change diplomatic tack on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, his methods are at high risk.
The news that – as Steenhuisen announced on Monday – he told “mayors, governors, MPs, members of the opposition, former prime ministers, academics, civil society leaders and citizens ordinary people” in Ukraine that the ANC’s support for Russia stemmed solely from “its own narrow financial interests” is unlikely to do more than push the ANC to double down on its position.
Of course, Steenhuisen may well be right in his assessment. But it would be an extraordinary government – one that South Africa certainly does not have – that would welcome this as anything other than a provocation.
If Steenhuisen wanted to simultaneously win the hearts and minds of ordinary South Africans to the Ukrainian cause, he would have taken the opportunity of his report to address some of the perceptions circulating locally – especially given his stated aim to cut through the “fake news” and bring back an “unfiltered” account. These concerns include the documented existence of neo-Nazi elements within the Ukrainian military and the racism shown towards Africans in Ukraine.
In fairness, perhaps the head of the DA originally intended a more comprehensive report – one that would sincerely seek to tackle the myths, misperceptions, or complexities surrounding the conflict. In the end, however, it was apparently deemed best for Steenhuisen to keep it short and move on quickly.
Meanwhile, it seems the foreign policy virus is politically contagious. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) said they would picket outside the French Embassy later this month “to demand France‘s withdrawal from the continent”. Are there opposition politicians in South Africa who are really attuned to the mood of the country in which they live? DM