The Virtual Congress is the DA’s most inclusive gathering to date

Political parties must always be at the forefront of finding innovative solutions for emerging realities. Whether in opposition or government, political parties must embrace innovation to remain relevant in an ever-evolving political environment. Additionally, they must be agile enough not to be caught flat footed when these new realities emerge.  Few things challenged the capacity of parties to achieve this, more than the corona virus pandemic.

If it were not for the disruption inflicted on humanity by the outbreak of the pandemic, the DA would have held its elective congress, in person, as early as May. Prior to the announcement of the national lockdown, our preparations were all but finalized. However as soon as it become clear that a face-to-face gathering would be impossible at that time, the party initiated the process of exploring the practicalities of hosting an online congress.

For some context it is useful to trace back the origins of the decision to go to an early elective congress.  That decision was one of the key recommendations of the review panel appointed by the former leader of the party to investigate the cause(s) of the party’s loss of votes in the 2019 elections.

Last year, this time, the leader and chairperson of the party resigned simultaneously following an extraordinary federal executive meeting.

At the time many naysayers jubilantly predicted the decimation of the party. On the contrary and true to the resilient character of our organization, we weathered the storms with resolve to keep the party completely functional through one of its most difficult phases in history.

So much so, that a year later, virtually to the day, the party will host the largest virtual political gathering in South African history. The fact that such a gathering is made possible is due to a massive collaborative effort between a resilient administrative team and an inventive digital media unit, backed by a political leadership team making its decisions by relying on evidence-based research.

The decision to proceed with the early elective congress in a virtual format rather than wait to do so in person whenever that would have been allowed was part of the party’s wholesale migration of its administrative, professional and political operations virtually in response to the new normal working environment imposed on all of us by the corona virus pandemic.

In May 2020, we successfully held our Local Government Election workshop with over 200 participants taking part virtually. This was our first real test of our organizational capacity to host and manage such large scale virtual operations. It was a great success.

More recently, between 06 – 07 September we concluded our policy conference wherein we refreshed our policies and outlined our unequivocal Values Charter to settle some of the ambiguous policy positions which were the source of frequent polarising debate in the organization. Just last week, we concluded a well-managed dry run wherein we tested all the aspects of the congress without any glitch.

A total of 2089 delegates are accredited to participate in the proceedings of the congress. 1114 of these delegates are public representatives; in the form of serving Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Legislatures and Councillors. The balance of 975 consists of representatives of our branches across the country, which amounts to 47% of the total size of the delegates.  This makes the upcoming congress one with the largest representation of ordinary branch members to date. Comparatively, the previous congress only had 33% of non-public representatives as delegates.

In order to guarantee the optimal inclusion of all delegates, the party is subsidizing those delegates with less resources than others with data so that they too, can participate in the congress smoothly.

While the majority of the delegates will be connected to the congress from the comfort of their private spaces, there will be over 39 hybrid venues available for delegates to join across the 9 provinces, with the Western Cape constituting the largest portion with 14 hybrid venues and Mpumalanga with a single one.

Extensive background work has been conducted in the lead up to this weekend to ensure that all the hybrid venues will operate smoothly, and comply with all the required Covid-19 regulations to safeguard the health of our delegates in those spaces. Two provinces – Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga  – and several other regions in Gauteng and the Western Cape, have all held their leadership elections virtually without any incident, underscoring our faith in the systems and processes we have put in place to deliver a legitimate, and smooth operation at congress.

From the composition of the delegates, the extent of hybrid venues, the expansive technological subsidies that the party is providing to guarantee the participation of delegates from remote areas to the increased size of the number of delegates who are non-public representatives makes; this will  be the most inclusive congress in the history of the DA.

To address some of the concerns about the security of online voting for a congress of this magnitude, the party will be using the OpaVote online voting platform to allow delegates to cast votes for their preferred candidates. Once a delegate registers, he or she, will receive a unique code to enter on the system that will allow them to cast a single ballot.

OpaVote uses 128-bit encryption to secure the unique code that allows a delegate to vote. At the point of voting a delegate’s vote is then entirely secret. The technical team, presiding officers and auditors will only know that someone has successfully voted, but no one will know how that individual delegate have voted.

OpaVote platform is credible world class mechanism used by corporations and political parties all over the world to run secure, credible elections, and having successfully used the system at branch meetings and provincial congresses, we look forward to using it at our federal congress.

While many outsiders are largely interested in the leadership contests taking place, congress is much more than voting for leaders only. There will discussions on multiple constitutional amendments and resolutions on portfolio specific policy topics in addition to the debates on the party’s financial report and all the reports on the state of our ancilliary bodies; from DA Womens’ Network to DA Abroad.

The important lesson here is that organizations’ built on strong values and functional processes outlive temporary turbulent waves. Because if truth be told, no individuals or groups within an organisation, must be bigger than the organisation itself given the unavoidable reality that people come and go.

From Magaliesburg to Mgungundlovu, every DA delegate will have an equal fair chance to participate in the congress regardless of whether they are connecting on an IOS or Android device.  And notwithstanding the mammoth logistical operation it requires to prepare for a virtual congress with over 2000 delegates, we are confident that we will deliver a credible virtual congress with legitimate outcomes.