On Tuesday 25 September large parts of Cape Town were brought to a standstill by the well organised #TotalShutdown protest in respect of rampant poverty, crime and unemployment. Poverty and crime have been on the national discourse for some time, but there is a growing emphasis on unemployment.
In light of this something very interesting and quite surprising is hidden within the bowels of the DA’s five major policy announcements of 22 September namely, a job guarantee. Despite the DA’s best attempts to hide this under the slightly cryptic concept of a “voluntary national service” the bare bones of this jobs scheme are clear. In laymen’s terms: kids leaving school will unconditionally be offered a single year of income and skills training.
Once you get over the slightly strange attempt at misdirection you can see that it is simply a universal offer of employment for anyone who needs a job. Okay, when I said universal and that it applied to anyone, I was getting a bit ahead of myself. The DA want to limit it to school leavers. Additionally, the party has previously been vague about paying the participants a proper wage. But it’s a start.
As a lifelong ANC voter, it’s very surprising to see the DA lead the charge on proposing a direct employment policy. If I was being honest though, the road signs have been there for a while now.
For more than a year this issue has been bubbling at DA headquarters. There was an early, albeit vague, announcement of the policy in 2017 when it was still being considered. Until now the language has been guarded, but with this announcement it has become a clear programme. Despite not being the flagship policy, its location in the belly of the party’s pre-election campaign is a positive sign.
The party continues to camouflage this atypically progressive policy under the more classically DA heading of a “Fair Access to Jobs”. You are rewarded, however, if you persist in reading into the body of the text. There are some startlingly progressive changes in both direction and language. Gone are the days of vague “job opportunities” replaced by a sudden and apparent keenness for “real… jobs”. The reference to a stipend has been thrown out the window and now the DA is talking about an “income”, suggesting real remuneration. The Obama playbook has clearly been updated to Sanders 2.0.
While the more stereotypical blue slogans of crime and security receive greater attention in the total package of policy proposals, the fundamental shift in DA jobs policy needs to be applauded. More importantly it also needs to be picked up and discussed nationally. Just as the US, and most of the world, had to invest in direct employment in the wake of the Great Depression, so too does South Africa if it hopes to emerge out of its own de facto depression. As I am writing this, roughly two out of every three young people in our work force are unemployed and many of them are on the street protesting a lack of jobs. Urgent and dramatic interventions are clearly needed.
What is exciting about this policy shift from the DA is that finally a major political party is talking about large scale, direct job creation. It is also quite a shift in policy for the DA. Few would have suspected them of being the proponents of a state funded jobs scheme seeking to directly employ hundreds of thousands of young South Africans. This is after all the party that has historically emphasised a limited role for government in incentivising job creation. On the opposite side of the party aisle, for many months the President of South Africa has alluded to a “New Deal” without setting out much detail. Perhaps this move by the DA will prompt a real debate about the role of government in direct job creation.
I hope in the months leading up to the 2019 election that Mmusi Maimane heeds the words of US Democrat, James Carville, a key strategist who worked for Bill Clinton. He provided a simple, piercing narrative for electoral victory – focus on “the economy, stupid”.
Crime, immigration and corruption may be headline grabbers, but I think the DA should come out boldly for an assertive government keen on creating jobs and recognising the need for government to catch those not being picked up by the market. What’s the point of having a government otherwise? DM
Ben Cronin is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa, member of the Cape Bar