Few of its proposals are total surprises: state-owned entities should be privatised, particularly Eskom and SAA; every South African should have the right to own land and pass it on to their children; the party would reduce the number of ministries, etc etc. But there are also some novel, untested ideas, such as a year-long opportunity for every South African over the age of 35 who does not have a secondary education. It is a long, detailed, and well-considered document. But so convoluted and turbulent are our politics, it is by no means certain that more voters will buy into it than in the past.
The DA’s manifesto document, complete with several pictures (yes, Mmusi Maimane features… more than once) comes in at 83 pages. That compares with 68 pages for the ANC’s manifesto document, and 170 pages for that of the EFF.
(It is tempting to suggest, at this point, that the EFF’s manifesto may be the longest, but the IFP has yet to launch its own document, and one should never count out the possibility of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi having the final, and longest word.)
The DA manifesto, like that of the ANC and the EFF, does two things. Firstly, it spells out what the DA would actually do in government. This means that it also shows that the DA claims to understand what voters actually want. And secondly, it opens a window into the policy debates within the party. While for the ANC this means it is possible to determine the state of play of the various factions around issues like privatisation and economic policy more generally, for the DA the most interesting aspect is likely to be around internal debates around race and redress.
The DA has said for several years that South Africa has become a country of “insiders and outsiders”, that those with jobs can join unions and increase their salaries and benefits while their bosses get richer. But for the unemployed, life just gets worse. This finds expression early on in the manifesto document, where the party says that it will be, “not only pro-poor, but pro-all South Africans…the government cannot take sides, must be able to function as a neutral agent responsible for opening the playing field and maximising opportunities”.
In a way, this encapsulates the DA’s overriding problem. It wants to attract the votes of unemployed, poor & black people, while a large number of the DA members still do well out of the current system. This manifesto, then, is a political straddle, an attempt to paper over that particular difficulty. Of course, what it is also saying is that it is okay to be rich. This can both backfire and work for the party. It can backfire if the DA can be painted as being only for the rich, but it works to its advantage if it is able to harness the power of aspiration, in other words, get the vote of those who want to be rich.
The party says the first step in doing this is to provide policy certainty, to ensure investors and South African businesses have a reason to invest. First on its to-do list here is to guarantee property rights for everyone, and to reject expropriation without compensation. This was to be expected, this debate gives the DA the chance to define its identity as being the party for those who do not agree with expropriating land. It also says that it would free up government-owned land for people to own. While a good idea, it is likely that some within the ANC, and particularly Gauteng Premier David Makhura, will smile at a policy they are already implementing.
A little later comes another expected measure, to make it easier to hire and fire workers, and to allow “potential employees to opt-out of the relevant sectoral minimum wage…while still ensuring occupational safety and the human rights of all employees are upheld”. The DA says this shift would have the potential to unlock hundreds of thousands of jobs. It does appear to be true that there are companies that might hire more people if they could hire them for less money, and be able to fire them with less difficulty. While it is not easy to find hard evidence of this, the anecdotal fact that so many people will approach anyone asking for any kind of job, literally in the street, may suggest that there are people who would be prepared to work for less than the sectorally determined minimum wages. But a much bigger question will be whether voters will actually go for this or not.
The DA also says it would introduce mandatory strike balloting for unions before they proceed, and hold them accountable for any damage to property. It does appear that here something may have shifted in the body politic around unions. Cosatu’s strike of last week seemed to attract much anger from non-Cosatu members, and the union federation’s own documents show that it is weaker than it was.
One of the more interesting ideas in the DA’s manifesto comes around the concept of a “voluntary service year”. This would apply for anyone who doesn’t qualify for tertiary education. While the ANC has batted this idea around for a while, for the DA, there would be three streams. People would be able to volunteer in schools, health services and the police. Generally, this idea has in the past been confined to younger people. But the DA also suggests that those over the age of 35 with no secondary schooling will have access to a civilian service year. This might give hope to those who are nearing 40 and who have never had a realistic chance of finding work. It would certainly ensure some dignity, and the chance to access opportunities through regularised service.
The manifesto goes into detail about South Africa’s fiscal situation, explaining how bad our finances are. To fix this, it suggests that it would ensure financial institutions remain intact, that the SA Reserve Bank stays independent, that the Public Investment Corporation is not captured, and that the Financial Intelligence Centre is protected.
The DA makes no bones about its view on the ANC’s National Health Insurance scheme, which it calls “little more than the creation of another enormous state-owned entity”. It says it would use its own “Our Health Plan” which would provide better services and fewer opportunities for patronage.
The manifesto is perhaps at its most interesting when it comes to the issue of race, redress, and social cohesion. It has become well-known that the DA has difficulties on this issue, because of the very nature of its members. It started as a “white” party, and has won an increasing number of black voters over the years. The interests of those members will be diverse and difficult to manage. Some members will want to ensure their white children have the same opportunities as black children, others will feel their black children are still starting behind those white children in the race for jobs and success.
In the end, the manifesto says this:
“The reason that the DA supports a programme of race-based redress is, simply put, because it is an important part of our country’s reconciliation project and vital for justice. Redress by definition is a project aimed at redressing a past wrong, and once that wrong has been remedied, the need for said redress will by definition fall away. This means that a programme of redress does need a sunset clause. As a party that believes in liberal values and principles, we would seek to ensure that we move to a non-racial position as soon as a successful redress programme has been implemented.”
This position indicates that it is moving in the direction of trying to attract more black voters. Of course, this will be countered strongly by the ANC and the EFF. They will ask whether a “sunset clause” is really necessary, considering that racialised inequality is so entrenched, and that is unlikely to be changed in anything less than three or four generations. The issue of the inclusion of a sunset clause is possibly to have been at the insistence of those who would prefer to have less of the “race-based redress”. Either way, this is the way that the party has decided to get over this particular problem. It will hope there is enough in this for voters both black and white to support it.
Key to the DA’s entire manifesto is one thread that runs through it:
“Unlike the current government and all other political parties in this country, the DA does not seek to achieve economic justice by taking away from one person to give to another. We want to build a bigger economy…”.
This illustrated the party’s attempt to get a broad base of support from everyone. While it is difficult to be objective about these matters, it may be the best possible outcome to make everyone better off, while many voters may feel that it cannot actually be done without “taking” from the “haves”. Professor Mark Swilling made the point on SAfm (at 17:01 minutes) a few days ago that “there isn’t actually an example in the world of a country that has redistributed assets in a democracy”. In other words, it may be the DA is actually dealing in reality, rather than the EFF which focusses on levelling inequality by “taking” from the rich.
The document does include some other voter-friendly goodies. It will try to make learning to drive a part of the matric qualification, it will create housing vouchers for people to get help to build or buy their own homes, first-time home-owners would be exempt from housing duties, etc. All of this is aimed directly at the aspiring middle-class black voter whom it is trying to attract.
Then there are the consistent policy positions of the DA. It would reduce the VIP protection budget, reduce the number of government ministries to just 15, abolish the Hawks and bring back something much closer to the Scorpions. It would ensure that the National Director of Public Prosecutions could only be appointed by a two-thirds vote in Parliament (considering the breadth of the political views in our Parliament, it is hoped that either Caster Semenya or Hashim Amla would make themselves available for the post, because no one else could get enough cross-party support), and of course, it would abolish e-tolls in Gauteng.
The party would also introduce a mandatory sentence of 15 years in jail for anyone convicted of corruption involving over R10,000. This might be a great vote-winner, but somehow seems quite hardline. There is strong evidence that mandatory minimum sentences don’t work, and it is easy to imagine a backlash when such a sentence is passed on someone not seen to deserve it.
There has been much talk in the political domain about immigrants, and those who have entered the country illegally. The DA started this last year, saying that it would focus on this issue. Both the ANC and the EFF included the issue in their manifestos. The DA seems to actually be toning down its language on it. It does mention deportation for the immigrants who entered illegally and broke the law, but it also talks about supporting those who contribute to society. There is a special mention for those who are parentless. It says that “our migration policy will be based upon preventing irregular migration and incentivising regular migration to grow our economy, the region and Africa as a whole”.
On balance, the party has probably done enough to insulate itself against the charge that it is being xenophobic, or even helping to sow the seeds of xenophobia. It is likely that some in the party mobilised strongly against any plans to include language that could have been seen as inciting xenophobia. In the meantime though, its early foray into this area may well have pushed other parties further down this path than they originally might have gone.
Often the most significant part of a manifesto is not the document, but the speech delivered during its launch by the party’s leader. That is because, in our democracy like many others, the symbol of the party is the most important element of the decisions made by voters. This document is clearly well-thought through, and doesn’t appear to include too many pie-in-the-sky promises (like the EFF’s orthodontist for every school or the ANC’s promise to actually nationalise the Reserve Bank). But that won’t stop it being attacked by the other parties. And a well-drafted manifesto does not necessarily translate into electoral success.
This is likely to be a highly-contested election. The three main parties have produced their policy positions. This is likely to have been the high-point of the election from a policy point of view. From here on, though, it is likely that this contest will just get personal, and be all about identity politics. DM