Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Last week, the DA’s head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, announced that the party’s federal council had resolved to reject the ANC’s version of broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) and was working on designing an alternative policy framework for black economic empowerment (BEE) ahead of the 2019 election. Some of the reaction to her announcement was a reminder that large swathes of SA’s public discourse remain immature and intellectually constrained by ANC dominance.

In her piece, published in Business Day ("B-BBEE proves that when one black person prospers, others do not necessarily benefit by proxy," August 4), Ngwenya outlined the B-BBEE policy’s dismal failure on most fronts, potently summarised by the statistic that "black South African households today, rand for rand, make less than they did relative to white South African households in 1996". She then went on to outline four principles that the party would focus on as part of its yet-to-be-finalised alternative economic empowerment framework. And, in a subsequent comment published by News24, Ngwenya stipulated that, "There is a very real commitment to black empowerment, but we recognise that triple-BEE has not worked."

In a country with a consolidated democracy, the news that the biggest opposition party rejected the incumbent party’s failed approach to reducing inequality and was working on an alternative policy in the lead-up to a national election would be utterly uncontroversial. But in SA, where the ANC’s electoral dominance has enabled the party to position itself as the only legitimate voice in society, Ngwenya’s article triggered a backlash against the apparent audacity of an opposition party actually opposing its opponent.

The response to Ngwenya did not try to dispel the widespread perception that B-BBEE has been a dismal failure (one survey found that 86% of black respondents felt they had never benefited from the policy). Tellingly, the ANC’s own response to Ngwenya did not even try to dispute that B-BBEE had failed. Instead, the party said it was "also concerned that some of the benefits and opportunities brought by B-BBEE have not gone to their intended beneficiaries".

Unable to defend the track record of the ANC’s version of B-BBEE, some commentators chose to take issue with the mere fact that the DA dared to propose a real alternative. Respected journalist Ferial Haffajee led the Twitter charge, accusing the DA of having "dropped its support for black empowerment". Based on even a cursory reading of Ngwenya’s piece and the subsequent News24 report, this is a stunningly misleading interpretation. To repeat: Ngwenya explicitly stated that "there is a very real commitment to black empowerment", but that the ANC’s B-BBEE policy has proved to be the wrong approach to actually achieve such empowerment.

Haffajee’s tweet — and dozens of others like it — is revealing of the way in which the ANC has boxed-in SA’s public debate, and is premised on the instinct that anyone who opposes the ANC’s policy of BEE is automatically opposed to the principle. On one hand, this simply shows that naming the policy "Black Economic Empowerment" was the perfect semantic sleight of hand to deflect from its reality as a tool to syphon wealth to the ANC-connected political elite.

However, the most worrying part of the reaction to Ngwenya’s announcement was that — even in the face of her overwhelming evidence that B-BBEE has failed — some commentators apparently still regard it as sacrilege when opposition parties look for policy alternatives that don’t conform to the ANC’s group-based ideology. The implications of this reaction extend well beyond B-BBEE, and reveals an unhealthy desire to cling to an ANC paradigm even after it has failed. This does not bode well for our democracy less than a year away from an election. If no one can deliver a cogent argument proving that B-BBEE has worked, why should the DA not propose an alternative?

Dismissing any alternatives out of hand in the wake of a policy failure is not only lazy, but downright dangerous. The ability to "course correct" by replacing obvious policy failures with new approaches is one of democracy’s greatest advantages. Democracy enables voters to punish a governing party for failed policies by replacing it with other parties that promise to implement different ones. This ensures society can continually renew and adapt its policy framework as conditions evolve. But the long-standing tendency in SA to view any alternative to the ANC’s ideology as inherently illegitimate — even immoral — short-circuits this feedback loop and robs the country of any policy solutions that don’t originate with the ANC.

In a mature democracy, the public would realise that it’s in its best interest to allow opposition parties space to respond to the failures of the government by proposing alternative visions for society. That is the point of living in a democracy. In such a society, Ngwenya’s announcement that the DA does not support an ANC policy would have been an absolute non-event. And no serious commentator would have conflated the party’s rejection of the B-BBEE policy with a rejection of black economic empowerment as a principle.

The long-standing tendency in SA to view any alternative to the ANC’s ideology as inherently illegitimate robs the country of any policy solutions that don’t originate with the ANC

Instead, the commentariat would reserve judgment until they had actually seen the DA’s alternative policy, after which they would contrast and compare the party’s empowerment policy with that of the ANC and others. In the end, proposed policies would be judged on their own merits, and not based on some perverse logic of how closely they conform to ANC dogma.

Escaping from the ANC’s ideological doctrine to sincerely interrogate alternatives is particularly important as we enter an era of greater political competition and coalition governments. Acknowledging that no one has a monopoly on good ideas, and respecting the legitimacy of diverse viewpoints, is the lifeblood of any democracy. In the face of overwhelming evidence that inequality and poverty have worsened over the last decade of ANC misrule, continuing to immediately dismiss any alternative policies as inherently illegitimate is the surest way to bleed dry SA’s multi-party democracy.

Schreiber is a political scientist at Princeton University and author of Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC (Tafelberg).

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