Former US president Barack Obama. Picture: REUTERS
Former US president Barack Obama. Picture: REUTERS

Barack Obama’s lecture on the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth contained a timely message that we ignore at our peril.

Our democracy, hard won by Mandela and his ilk, will be vulnerable if we don’t deal with inequality. Democracy, the doctrine of equal political rights for all, cannot be sustained in the face of such radically unequal access to economic opportunity.

It was ironic to see ANC heads nodding in agreement, even as unemployment, inequality and poverty continue to rise steadily in SA, and even as the ANC doubles down on policies that will only cause them to grow further. Its response to rank economic failure is to play the race card — exactly what Obama warned us against.

Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi’s response to my "send the army" petition epitomises the ANC’s approach. I delivered it to him at the Nyanga police station as a potential solution to the gang violence that is holding communities on the Cape Flats hostage. But rather than focus on solutions to a crime crisis, he played the race card.

ANC policies are hostile to growth and job creation and so threaten our democracy

SA’s history of racial division has cost us dearly. We now face a clear choice. We can continue to be corralled into our race groups, or we can choose to recognise our common humanity and work together to build a SA for all.

Obama and Mandela motivated compellingly for the latter, and this must be our vision too. We South Africans must unite around shared values of nonracialism, constitutionalism, an inclusive market-based economy and the rule of law.

The ANC’s approach to governing SA has consistently been at odds with Obama’s values. The party’s focus is on transferring wealth to a connected elite at the expense of the poor and unemployed. Yet the greatest source of inequality in SA is between those who have jobs and the 9.5-million adults who do not. The best way to tackle inequality and injustice, and by so doing preserve our democracy, is through job-creating economic growth that brings more people into the economy.

ANC policies are hostile to growth and job creation and so threaten our democracy.

The Mining Charter, black economic empowerment in its current form and land expropriation without compensation deter investment and enable elite enrichment, creating a fertile breeding ground for various kinds of corruption.

Corruption has become systemic in our country, a cosy co-operation between a political elite and private businesses willing to co-operate, at the expense of everyone else left out. Eskom is a prime example. SA’s is not the inclusive market economy Obama called for. It is increasingly exclusive and state-led. When people are left out and have nothing to lose, they are susceptible to populism and racial scapegoating. This is the dangerous territory Mandela steered us clear of, and which the ANC is now leading us back into.

Market-based economic system

SA needs a market-based economic system in which the government’s role is to create conditions that foster growth and job creation: a functional education system; an enabling regulatory environment; affordable, reliable electricity; and a safe environment. As more people are brought into the economy, so inequality will fall.

SA’s best chance at success is under a government that serves all and seeks to unite South Africans around the values of nonracialism and everyone following the law. We will never prosper as a country while we pit one group against another.

The politics of identity have not served this country over the past 350 years and they will not do so in future. This is not to say we cannot be proud of our tribe or race. I am black and proud of it, and that doesn’t make me a racist.

Obama warned against politics as a hostile competition between tribes and races. He urged us to recognise, as Mandela did, our common humanity; that our differences are superficial. We are better together. We need a government that grows opportunity for all, prioritising the poor and vulnerable and not the connected elite.

Obama warned us that a lack of accountability is a breeding ground for corruption. We must hold the government to account for the growing unemployment, inequality and poverty that is locking more and more people out of the economy and putting our democratic system at risk.

The DA is committed to accountability. In the Patricia de Lille matter, we have sought accountability. We have stood by our principles and attempted to hold a public representative to account.

On the centenary of Mandela’s birth, we reaffirm our commitment to democracy by reaffirming our commitment to fighting inequality. We are committed to honest, principled government that promotes a growing, job-creating economy, equal opportunity and the rule of law.

• Maimane is leader of the official opposition.