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Why I’ll hold my nose and vote DA

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The DA is a party without clear policies, whose leaders point wherever the fickle winds of public opinion blow. I do have principles, and yet I’ll grudgingly give them my vote.

The resignation letter, written by the DA head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, was a body blow to the party, coming only 11 months after it hired her and months before the long-anticipated national and provincial elections, expected to be held in May 2019.

The bottom line is that I do not believe the DA takes policy seriously; and as a result, there has not been the operational or political resources necessary to result in a policy outcome I can be proud to be associated with,” wrote Ngwenya, addressing her letter to party leader Mmusi Maimane.

There are many good people, including yourself, fighting many fights every day, but ideas are not a battleground the DA likes to tread.”

It confirmed everything I suspected about the party. The party never used her insight, clarity and policy expertise. It has become politically opportunistic and directionless, no longer founded on strongly held beliefs and values. There’s little of substance there to vote for.

In the conflict between the DA’s classical liberal wing, its green-left social-democrats and its racial grievance voices, it has abandoned the principles that could have informed sound policy and that are so much part of the party’s heritage. When they’re not bickering in public, its leaders do and say whatever sounds the most seductive for a sound-bite, or whatever polls the best with the public. Intellectually, the party is an empty, echoing hall.

The DA once was a party that stood firm on classical liberal principles. It is necessary to qualify the term liberal, because it has been torn from its roots by all sorts of people who advocate government intervention in the economy to achieve various social engineering goals, from wealth redistribution to nanny-statism. I have no truck with the leftist, statist bastardisation of liberalism, although the DA increasingly does.

I don’t mean to suggest that classical liberal principles preclude measures that seek to redress the injustices of the past and heal the divisions of history, as our Constitution enjoins us to do. On the contrary, they are entirely consistent with the belief that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. They explicitly insist on non-discrimination in general, and non-racialism in particular. In fact, it was on grounds of classical liberal principles that the DA’s predecessors condemned and actively opposed the unjust policies of apartheid.

Classical liberalism stands in opposition to the Keynesian era of deficit spending, protectionism, interventionism and creeping socialism. It is the ideology that espouses a small government under the rule of law, mandated to protect life, liberty and property, and limited by a sacrosanct Constitution that guarantees individual rights and equality before the law. It celebrates freedom from the oppression and depredations of the state.

Among the rights it guarantees, the right to private property is fundamental. Other individual human rights are profoundly threatened by the erosion of property rights. In fact, it can be argued that all human rights are property rights, derived from a person’s ownership of their own body and labour.

For example, press freedom would mean nothing if the state owned the media. It can only be exercised if the means of publishing are privately owned. As the late economist and political theorist Murray Rothbard wrote:

The human right of free speech is only the property right to hire an assembly hall from the owners, to speak to those who are willing to listen, to buy materials and then print leaflets or books and sell them to those who are willing to buy.”

From the pre-eminence of private property follows the idea of economic freedom, or free markets. “The key ingredients of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to compete in markets, and protection of person and property,” writes Robert A Lawson, economics professor and co-author of the Fraser Institute’s annual Economic Freedom of the World Report. “Institutions and policies are consistent with economic freedom when they allow voluntary exchange and protect individuals and their property.”

These principles are important because they strongly correlate with measures of social progress, such as higher income per capita, better economic growth, lower poverty rates, more income for the poorest people, both in absolute terms and as a share of total income, longer life expectancy and improved political rights and civil liberties. Economic freedom is good for everyone (see charts on pp. 25-28 of the Fraser Institute’s 2016 Economic Freedom of the World Report).

The DA’s young leader, Mmusi Maimane, is covetous to be seen as the true heir of Nelson Mandela. He has lurched leftwards in an attempt to make the DA look like what everyone once hoped the ANC would be: The party that promises to deliver a better life for all. But like the ANC’s policies, a leftward move is bound to fail.

Maimane has denied Ngwenya’s claim that her policy department didn’t receive budgetary or political support. She recently sparked a very public dispute over the party’s stance on empowerment. She wanted the qualifying criterion for empowerment to be disadvantaged, while others in the party, including Maimane, were insistent that the criterion should remain one of race. It is entirely plausible that these and other differences proved to be irreconcilable, and that the party would have ditched her anyway if she had not resigned.

However, Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape, told me that she entirely agrees with Ngwenya, and said she would help fight to take the party back to its liberal roots. There is similar speculation in an article by S’Thembile Cele for City Press. It cites unnamed party insiders who said a group of “true liberals” are seeking the ouster of Maimane should the DA’s support fail to grow its 22% share of the vote (and polls indicate that it will fail by a substantial margin).

We have yet to see the party’s election manifesto, to gauge its true position. What its policies will be after the election appear to hinge upon whether or not the classical liberals in the party win the policy power struggle after the election.

The line “we won’t be as corrupt as the ANC” seems like a terribly weak reason to vote for the DA. But in the absence of a coherent and principled policy stance, it isn’t. It’s enough.

The ANC cannot be rehabilitated. Corruption and cronyism are woven into its very fabric. Even if Cyril Ramaphosa is sincere in his desire to root out the graft of the Zuma era, I’m not convinced he has the power to do so. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of politicians, several of them with seats in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet, will have to be prosecuted. I don’t think the ANC will tolerate the brutal purge that is required, nor do I think Ramaphosa’s precarious support will survive it.

Besides, as I said from the start, Ramaphosa is a socialist who is doctrinally bound to advance the principles of the National Democratic Revolution, to which the ANC recommits itself at every national conference. Written by the South African Communist Party in 1962 and adopted as its primary economic platform by the ANC in 1969 it outlines the road to socialism. Those are not principles I can live with.

We might not be sure what the DA’s policies are, but we can be certain that the ANC’s policies are harming the country, will continue to do so and would do so even without the endemic corruption in government.

Electing the ANC in 1994 was necessary. It was just. It was not the only party to seek the overthrow of apartheid, but as the leading party of liberation, it had a clear moral right to take a stab at correcting the social, political and economic injustices of the past.

And that ANC has achieved a great deal. It made great strides in rolling out electrification, potable water and sanitation, land reform, housing for the poor, education and social welfare. As I’ve written before, give the ANC credit where credit is due.

But that credit ran out a long time ago, as have the gains. The ANC is a spent force. In the past 10 or 12 years, South Africa’s economic freedom score took a permanent turn for the worse. In the latest Economic Freedom of the World Report, South Africa languishes way down the rankings, in 110th place out of 162 countries.

Today, the ANC empowers the advantaged, and exploits political power to enrich politicians and their cronies in business. Even if it wanted to care about the poor, it is no longer capable of doing so. And even if it were, its socialist policies would harm them, not help them.

Key national institutions, such as the South African Revenue Service and the National Prosecuting Authority, have been compromised and critically weakened. State-owned enterprises are drowning in debt, inefficiency and corruption. Even its well-intended programmes are failing.

By many measures, not least economic growth, the ANC has led the country into a death spiral that might well lead to the kind of catastrophic collapse we’ve seen in Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

By contrast, the Democratic Alliance government in the Western Cape has outperformed its provincial rivals on many key indicators. You’ll hear about them endlessly in the run-up to the elections in May. Leaving aside matters of service delivery and economic prosperity, let’s just look at the number of clean audit reports for legislatures, departments and public entities in each province for the 2017/18 financial year.

The Free State received not a single clean audit, down from 13% in 2016/17. The North West held steady at 5%. Limpopo also received 5%, down from 10% the year before. KwaZulu-Natal managed 12%, down from 17%. The Eastern Cape received 19%, down from 29% the year before. The Northern Cape received 23%, down from 31%. Mpumalanga received 24%, a rare improvement from 19%. Gauteng received 52%, the same as the year before. And way, way in the lead, we have the Western Cape, with 83% clean audits.

Or how about irregular expenditure? KwaZulu-Natal misspent a whopping R9.9-billion. Gauteng recorded R6.4-billion. The Free State clocked in with R3.9-billion. The North West Province had R3.1-billion. Limpopo burnt R2.5-billion. Mpumalanga poured R2.2-billion down the drain. The Northern Cape wasted R1.1-billion. The Eastern Cape came in just under the billion mark, with R860-million. The Western Cape was cited for a mere R44-million in irregular expenditure.

Table: Audit reports for SA provincial legislatures for the 2017/18 financial year. Best results are shaded green. Second-best results are shaded yellow.

Since I live in the Western Cape, I’d like to keep the government I’ve got, thank you very much.

I am under no illusion that the DA, or its representatives, are incorruptible. Power corrupts, after all. Still, I have very high confidence that the DA will be less corrupt and less wasteful than the ANC in the next five or 10 years, whether it’s in a provincial or national government. If it slides down the same greasy slope, we can always vote it out again, and give someone else a go.

I am also confident that the DA will outperform the ANC on most, if not all, measurable statistics on service delivery. There is a good chance it will improve our precarious health care system, our piss-poor education, our rickety low-cost houses. It will certainly strengthen property rights, for rich and poor, and at least leans towards slashing the mountains of taxes and bureaucratic red tape that businesses and individuals face. However far left its policies might swing, pushed about by political expediency, they won’t swing all the way to Venezuela.

I could vote for a third party, but I’d rather not see more unbecoming alliances between parties that should be sworn enemies, like the DA and the EFF.

We can revisit whether the party actually deserves our votes once the existential threat the ANC poses to South Africa has been neutralised. The ANC might not be much of a yardstick, but a DA government is a far better option.

That’s why I will (once again) hide my dissatisfaction with the party’s unmoored policies. I’ll affix a clothespeg to my nose, put on a forced smile, and vote DA. DM


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