It has taken decades for political parties opposing the ANC to come up with a defensible alternative policy that meets the challenges of our times.

The past weekend saw the DA offer its considered counter to the ANC, but the policy’s birth has not been without considerable controversy. It followed in the wake of the departure from the party over recent months of important major black leaders in the party — Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba and John Moodey — who distanced themselves from the prevailing thinking in the upper echelons of the party.

The crux of the argument is whether race should be used as a proxy for disadvantage. Maimane, Mashaba and Moodey all believed it should be, but current leadership — John Steenhuisen, Helen Zille and Gwen Ngwenya (backed now by the delegates at the party’s first policy conference this past weekend) — have voted to eradicate race from the equation and opt for complete non-racialism.

Proponents of the change believe it is a matter of principle that the party must adopt, and that it will not dent support for the party among black voters. Support for the disadvantaged in society would be provided for in other aspects of policy and would not be assessed on a racial measure. It would do away with the ANC’s abuse of the BEE policy, which has been used to establish a new black economic elite without aiding the bulk of the poor in any way.

The abuse of the BEE policy by the ANC is there for all to see — so many of its leaders are now fat-cat examples of BEE.

That leading black members of the party have resigned ahead of the adoption of the new policy does not bode well for the DA at the polls

Since the removal of apartheid in the 1990s the ANC has aimed to realise the goals of its hugely idealistic and impractical Freedom Charter, adopted a generation earlier. It has stepped back from applying aspects of that policy, for practical reasons, without abandoning or amending them.

The charter set out to establish a society in which the banks and mines would be nationalised and land given to all landless people, the national wealth would be restored to the people, and all would have the right to occupy land “wherever they choose”.

All people would have the right to be decently housed, slums would be demolished and new suburbs built where all would have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres.

A quarter of a century after the ANC came to power, we know that large chunks of these sentiments are pie in the sky. In particular, in the light of the DA’s new non-racial policy, the Freedom Charter’s clause that “the preaching and practice of national, race or colour discrimination and contempt shall be a punishable crime” comes under scrutiny.

What is BEE other than the practice of race discrimination? Different racial criteria are used for the acceptance of students of different racial backgrounds to medical faculties at universities. Employment of workers is governed by racial criteria, not by merit. National sport teams are determined by racial quotas, not by the need to select the best teams.

All this would not hold water under the new DA policy. The need to assist disadvantaged people of any racial group would be met on a level playing field, but merit would be king.

Ngwenya was asked if the new DA policy would cost it votes at the next elections, due next year. She made it clear that the policy was adopted as a matter of principle, but said there had been no indication that black voters would reject it. It is certainly an issue that will be tested at the municipal elections in 2021, remembering that the DA received its first reduction in support at the last elections.

While it still controls the Western Cape and is in a coalition with smaller parties to control certain metropoles, there is much uncertainty over whether the DA can do as well again. Its share of the vote shrank from 22% to 20%, yet it aspires to become a governing party in other provinces and eventually nationally. That leading black members of the party have resigned ahead of the adoption of the new policy does not bode well for the DA at the polls. 

Business Day’s Carol Paton is a shrewd commentator on SA politics, and she has treated the new policy harshly, claiming earlier this week that the DA has taken a step back from aspiring to be a governing party and a step away from accepting responsibility for racial reconciliation (“DA now a party for some, not all, as new race policy entrenches denialism”, September 8). While DA members might be happier, “SA will not be made any better by a denial that race still matters in SA and will matter forever”.

Rather than propagating a policy that entrenches denialism, the new DA policy challenges the public to face reality and get away from slogans

I don’t agree with that assessment. It ignores the party’s own statement in announcing the policy — that, while it is false to assume one’s race represents how people think or feel about shared events, racialism and racism do exist and have a profound and damaging impact on the lives of individuals and society. Racialism and racism thus remain enemies to DA policy and have not been buried by the adoption of the new non-racial policy.

Paton argues that black voters, who had been attracted to the DA “because it began to look like it might evolve into a cleaner and more efficient version of the ANC” had already had their hopes dashed by events of the past year. Does the DA really want to look like a clean, efficient version of ANC policy? I would think not. The ANC still strives for socialist goals and repeatedly seeks ways for the state to increase its role in the economy. It is in an alliance with the SACP and union federation Cosatu. It is in competition with private enterprise for economic control.

By contrast, the DA seeks to advance the private sector as the engine of growth, defining the role of the public sector as providing the services on which the private sector can operate. That the public sector has been used massively for state capture and looting of the economy, to the point where state corporations are bankrupt or in business rescue, should not encourage anyone to give the state more power than it already has.

The country is in serious economic straits because of ANC policy. So serious is this plight, with unemployment over 30% and growing and the Covid-19 pandemic aggravating the situation — much of this demonstrably caused by ANC corruption and maladministration — that a return to principle should be welcomed.

The country is already suffering the effects of social unrest on an increasing scale. Numerous instances of land invasion and public demonstrations for better service are occurring every week. The answer of the dissatisfied masses is populist and would surely push the country further down the economic ladder even if their hopes were to do the opposite.

This state of affairs may be the greatest hurdle to the DA making headway with its purified policy on race. The poor in society have got used to the privilege of BEE. Racial privilege gives them opportunities they would have to work for otherwise. Rather than propagating a policy that entrenches denialism, the new DA policy challenges the public to face reality and get away from slogans. It is not an easy row to hoe.

Perhaps, in that sense, Paton is right in asking: “Will the voters like it? Is the DA better positioned to make a positive impact on SA?” It is an improved policy, because it is honest and straightforward, but it is not easy to sell to a voting public that has been fed a form of privilege in the guise of redress for past wrongs.

• Patten is a former editor of the Mercury in Durban.

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