South Africa

ANALYSIS

DA policy conference: Ditching race-based policies amid a racial storm

DA Federal Executive Council chairperson Helen Zille. (Photo: Gallo Images/Thulani Mbele)

The DA claims it has found a way to address economic injustice while discarding race in its policies. The party is determined to move beyond race, but seems inextricably defined by racial divisions.

DA federal council chairperson Helen Zille and the party’s head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, seem tired of talking about race, at least when it comes to incorporating racial identity in the party’s policies and whether racial divisions have contributed to a string of high-profile resignations.

In a press conference on Monday, they were asked about little else.

They were speaking after the DA concluded its first policy conference this weekend. About 110 delegates met online and voted for party values that acknowledged the abhorrent influence racism has had on society.

At the same time, delegates supported policies that dismissed the use of racial categories as a means to identify and uplift the disadvantaged, who are almost exclusively those who suffered under apartheid’s racist policies or their lasting impact. That is to say, black people.

“We hope that it really draws the line in the sand and it sets a new direction for South Africa where we are not forced into this false binary option of choosing between non-racialism or redress. We’ve actually gone the ambitious and imaginative route, saying we can have a policy that does both,” said Ngwenya on the DA’s new economic justice policy.

The DA has worked hard over the past decade to dismiss the accusation that it will, as detractors say, “bring back apartheid”.

After the 2016 local government elections, when it managed to form coalitions to run Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, major metros where the ANC dropped under 50%, the party looked like it might be able to shed its baggage and potentially challenge the ANC in provinces other than the Western Cape.

That was before the DA tanked in the 2019 elections, before the resignations of Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, Athol Trollip, John Moodey and a host of party staffers, before Helen Zille returned from her post at the Institute of Race Relations, before she doubled down on her colonialism comments, and before the DA lost each of the metros it gained in 2016.

Now, the eternal question asked of the DA has returned as strongly as ever: Does it actually care about the majority of South Africans and, if so, are they or the country’s wealthy, white minority its priority?

Ngwenya believes that’s a false dichotomy. The most significant introduction in the DA’s new policy proposes replacing broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) and quotas for race and gender with a metric to recognise corporate contributions to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“I keep being forced into this binary where the assumption is that it’s not going to address the material conditions of South Africans, but it will. That’s precisely what the policy addresses,” said Ngwenya.

Rather than continuing with a form of BBBEE while cutting down on the associated corruption, the DA argues it has found a way to boost economic growth while rewarding companies for helping to address the root causes of economic exclusion.

Black ownership requirements would be scrapped and government procurement would target companies that are competent and contribute to meeting the SDGs. Other interventions such as social grants would be based on a range of indices to measure need.

“If you only use race, you end up with Jacob Zuma, for example, saying he was only applying BBBEE when he ensured that all of his network got tenders and contracts and got into top positions so they could manipulate systems and create looting channels from the state,” claimed Zille.

The DA policy cites international examples of using SDG metrics to evaluate companies’ impact on societies, but those efforts remain nascent and the party has not clearly explained how it would work in South Africa.

“Yes, there is a policy to deal with apartheid inequality and it’s the one we passed on Sunday,” said Ngwenya.

The DA proposes a raft of policy interventions on issues such as health, education and keeping families together, but the new policy is centred on promoting economic growth through removing the burden of BBBEE on companies.

One consistent claim from the black DA leaders who have resigned in the past year, however, has been that the party has shifted its focus to securing its base rather than focusing on broad growth.

The ANC’s economic transformation policies have largely failed to make a significant impact, but the DA’s SDG ideas, which are, so far, high-level and lacking in specific detail, appear to entrust society’s development and transformation to the business sector, much of which benefited from apartheid, fails to meet transformation targets even when pressured, and promotes glossy upliftment programmes while continuing to exploit workers, communities and the environment.

Ngwenya’s team should be credited for trying to draft a new framework for economic growth and inclusion, but the SDG model looks like it was drafted to first appease the business community while leaving details of how it would realistically benefit the majority of South Africans to a later date.

Again, it raises the question of which demographic the DA is trying to represent.

A review on the party’s 2019 electoral decline, commissioned by the DA and authored by Ryan Coetzee, Tony Leon and Michiel le Roux, found there was “a significant shift away from the DA among white voters, particularly white Afrikaans voters”.

Conservative white voters shifted their support to the Freedom Front Plus as Maimane’s DA struggled to articulate its policies on issues like BBBEE and tried to appeal to black voters by taking stances on issues of racism, some of which backfired. The party failed to increase support and in 2019 only 4% of its votes came from black voters, down from a peak of 5.9% in 2016.

Zille on Monday suggested that the black leaders who left the party in the wake of those elections weren’t pressured to leave and had the agency to make their own choices. She dismissed allegations she and her allies were purging opponents and claimed members often claimed race or gender discrimination when personal or disciplinary matters led them to resign.

One consistent claim from the black DA leaders who have resigned in the past year, however, has been that the party has shifted its focus to securing its base rather than focusing on broad growth.

DA leadership candidate Mbali Ntuli, who is running against the party’s interim leader, John Steenhuisen, suggested as much when she launched her campaign, saying, “I think this election is going to determine whether we want the DA to stabilise and sort of stay where it is or if we want to inspire people to come back to the DA.”

The party will elect leaders at its federal congress, beginning on 30 October.

It’s unlikely that those elections, or the adoption of its new policy, will quell infighting or solve the DA’s challenge of how to embrace “non-racialism” while maintaining its voting base, which is almost exclusively made up of minorities. DM

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  • Commentators ignore the obvious: that the DA’s ascendancy in the 2016 was driven by Black folk who, sick of Zuma’s corruption and state capture, either voted DA or stayed away. It’s decline in the 2018 general elections showed that the CR factor undermined their attempt to appeal to Black voters by being ANC-lite. Its shift towards redress rather than race is perfectly consistent with its roots in non-racialism. By shining the spotlight on the fact that BEE has been ineffective as a redress instrument, the DA is forcing a healthy reorientation of the debate about race and redress in SA. The electoral implications have yet to be experienced. Even in the (unlikely) even that they are negative for the DA, a service to the country will still have been rendered. BEE has obviously not achieved the redress that it should have and is past its sell-by date.

    • I have to agree. Race based policies have had a massively damaging impact on the country both socially & through “party based” corruption but no-one other than the DA actually wants to, or sees the need to, get well away from it all. Unless the issues of the poor are addressed directly, rather than through a complex & evidently corruptable set of rules, they will always be left behind.

  • Why does the DA bother with taking potshots on national policy issues and choices? It wil NEVER be the majority party in SA. Understand that reality and maybe the DA and its supporters can move forward. Fight elections on issues like service delivery and putting locals into local representative positions after making sure those representatives actually get out locally and know their issues and their voters. Leave waffling on and on and on and on about national policies like BEE to the political science, history and philosophy students. Avoid appointing those students…

  • Where does the DA fit in? The country is on the brink, and there is not much time. The ANC is weaker than ever, and must be deposed – or else. This requires a mass off black votes to come together – whereas they are steadily leaving the DA. The target market must be the judge, and they are speaking. The DA will not be a national force, only a sectarian one.

  • I find the writer’s dismissal of the SDG model to be premature and unfair. The SDGs are not a business initiative. They are an initiative by the United Nations to enable governments, business and civil society (including political parties) around the world to set achievable targets to end poverty by 2030. The fact that some business (not all) has been quicker – for once! – to latch on to them more quickly than others may have is not a reason to dismiss the SDG model as not having worth in building a common framework around the quest to end poverty. Speaking in these terms takes the vexing issue of race out of the discussion, and enables the really important issue of ENDING POVERTY to take centre stage. Personally, I have found the DA’s actions in the last few years to have been highly of the “shoot in the foot” nature, but I can really see the sense of this SDG model. You’ll also find a lot of it in government’s National Development Plan, by the way.

  • I believe that a primary indicator of any nation being on a healthy trajectory is when leaders and politicians are more focused on solving real problems and changing things for the better, as opposed to feathering their own beds, gaining popularity/support/growing the party etc. It seems like the impossible fantasy anywhere in the world…but I believe it is a fantasy whose time is ripe. It’s up to us to not tolerate anything different.

  • We cannot solve the significant problems we face at the same level of thinking we were when we created them -ALBERT EINSTEIN. So if your prejudice toward the DA thinking on a different level is well founded, and after 24 years BBBEE has done nothing to redress imbalances, and corruption within the ANC has stooped so low that they are stealing from the poorest with zero consequence, and the country has been bankrupted under ANC rule, you must have an alternative in mind. Care to share?

  • The perception of many people is that South Africa has a race problem and leaders scramble to find solutions to the race problem to no avail as the ANC has proved. Race problems are a social construct whose only purpose is to provide a hanger for prejudice on both sides of the divide, great ammunition for political guns. The reality is that we have a social problem and until minds focus on these problems, nothing will improve. The DA has gone half way in removing race from their agenda but they need to go further. When they explain the problem coherently and offer solutions, they will win votes.

  • While I’m not entirely sold on the DA’s position, they could certainly have communicated things better – surely their point of departure in explaining this new approach should have been to highlight how the way BEE is currently structured has only led to the empowerment of a few elites and worse, has inculcated the culture of tenderpreneurship that has caused so many of our corruption problems?….Instead of announcing that their aim is to take race out of the equation – a touchy subject in our racially-riven country – they should have announced this new direction as being an alternative to the system that enabled the Gupta takeover and the theft of the Covid-19 funds….(I don’t know if they have a decent spin doctor working for them, but just so they know, I am always available). 🙂