Over the past two weeks the Democratic Alliance has been through what one newspaper has called "its biggest crisis yet". This was triggered by the shocked reaction, from within liberal and Afrikaner circles and from within the party itself, over the DA's decision to perform a U-turn on its historic opposition to the Employment Equity Act and vote for a series of draconian amendments to this racialist legislation in the National Assembly in late October.
This first dramatic U-turn was followed by a second, late last week, as DA leader Helen Zille admitted that the official opposition should never have voted for the Bill in the first place, and would now seek to make amends by opposing it as it made its way through the National Council of Provinces.
If you are a person who relies on the English-language press for its news (Business Day excluded) this controversy would have arrived like a bolt from the blue on about Friday.
The timeline below sets out how the story actually developed:
On Thursday October 24 the National Assembly voted in favour of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in the Second Reading Debate. This Bill sought to strengthen the ability of the Department of Labour to enforce racial and gender quotas - based on demographic proportionality - at all levels of the private sector by removing existing checks-and-balances, increasing the department's enforcement powers, and massively increasing the maximum potential fines for non-compliance.
The Bill is supported both by the African National Congress and the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, despite the latter's concerns over some aspects. In the debate DA Shadow Deputy Minister of Labour Andricus van der Westhuizen announced his party's decision to support the Bill and stated that the Employment Equity Act was completely compatible with the DA's vision of the open opportunity society.
Later in the debate DA Shadow Minister of Labour Sej Motau said that his party fully supported "the constitutional provisions for affirmative action and the objectives of the Employment Equity Act to promote redress and diversity in the South African labour market. The DA believes that it is desirable that individuals from diverse backgrounds should lead, participate in and form part of businesses and other organisations in South Africa, and that corrective action should be taken to achieve such diversity. However, while we support the general thrust of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill before this House today, we remain concerned about some provisions in the Bill."
The only political party to oppose the amendment bill was the Freedom Front Plus. FF+ MP Pieter Groenewald released a statement following the vote setting out his party's position and noting that the Bill had passed with both the support of the ANC and the DA. The DA does not release a statement publicising or explaining its support for the Bill.
On Monday, October 28, Politicsweb published an article by its editor, James Myburgh, headed: "Has the DA put a bullet through its brain?" The article noted that then Democratic Party had opposed the original Employment Equity Bill in 1998 with its then leader Tony Leon describing it as a "pernicious piece of social engineering." And that the DP had built up its support among racial minority voters, and thereby secured the status of official opposition in 1999, through vigorously opposing the ANC's race-based policies and legislation. He commented:
"It is difficult to see what on earth could have come over the DA caucus in parliament to make it reverse its former opposition to this racialist and totalitarian legislation and support these amendments. Helen Zille has in the past described the principle that lies at the heart of the Act as ‘Verwoerdian' so why would her party vote for its more stringent enforcement? By doing so the DA has betrayed its supporters, its history, its principles and indeed, the future of South Africa itself....While the penny may not drop before the 2014 elections at some point over the next five years the DA's white, Coloured and Indian supporters will ask themselves why they should continue to back a party that voted in parliament for their racial marginalisation."
This article, though read over 5 000 times in two days, is met with... silence.
The DA does not respond and the story is not picked up by either the English or the Afrikaans press. On Wednesday, October 29, Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder released a press statement describing the DA's support for the amendment bill as "inexplicable" given that it discriminates, on a racial basis, "against a large portion of their white, brown and Indian support base. The current DA view also differs directly from the view held by the previous DA Leader, Tony Leon, when he, on behalf of the DA, condemned this type of correction (Parliament 20 August 1998) and described it as a pernicious piece of social engineering."
The statement is once again ignored by the media, and the DA again does not respond. On Thursday October 31 Politicsweb published an article by the veteran journalist Stanley Uys in which he commented on the "icy silence" that had met Myburgh's article.
"No public reaction whatever - not from the DA, its leader Helen Zille, or its supporters; nor from the media; nor from the African National Congress. One from the small parliamentary party Freedom Front Plus. What is the commotion about? Why the silence? It is the extraordinary decision taken by the DA to bend its liberal principles sufficiently to win over black voters. Only by edging closer to the ANC, it believes, can it recruit those black voters, and without them it will forever remain in opposition."
The issue is first picked up in the press in a comment piece by Beeld political editor Jan-Jan Joubert on Friday November 1. He noted that a debate has been raging in DA and liberal circles over the past week following Myburgh's article. Joubert writes that it is his understanding that there is a recognition high in the DA that their support for the Bill was a mistake and that the party's reservations over the legislation should have been articulated far more clearly.
Joubert noted that the reason Myburgh's article has caused such a stir was because there was a widespread feeling that the DA had been drifting away from the one principle that had run like a golden thread through the South African liberal tradition - through its high points and low points - namely the commitment to the principle of non-racialism.
On Saturday, November 2, Politicsweb was sent, and published, a statement by DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko explaining her party's position on Employment Equity. Mazibuko wrote that "The DA voted in favour of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in the National Assembly because we believe in the need to create an inclusive economy. This does not mean that we agree with all the clauses in the Bill." She adds that the DA will push for amendments when the Bill comes before the National Council of Provinces. If these amendments are not secured the DA will "vote against the Bill in the NCOP and if it comes back to the National Assembly."
The DA does not distribute this statement to other media houses, though it is later picked up on and published by The Star. On Sunday, November 3, Rapport becomes the first newspaper to actively report on the controversy. In a banner on its front page it asks: "Did the DA betray its voters with its support for controversial race law?" next to a copy of the DA logo in ANC colours and a picture of Helen Zille.
The article on the controversy, by Julian Jansen, quoted Dirk Hermann, deputy head of Solidarity - the most powerful civil society organisation in the Afrikaans community - as expressing his astonishment at the DA leadership's support for the Bill which he said stood against everything the DA's current supporters believe in. Historian Hermann Giliomee was quoted as saying that by voting for the Bill the DA has drawn a "through a long and proud history" and broken the contract with minorities who had voted for the party in the understanding that the DA would also defend their interests.
Rapport also published the article by Myburgh, in an Afrikaans translation, and a reply by Van der Westhuizen. In an opinion piece Flip Buys, the head of Solidarity, described the DA's dramatic U-turn on Employment Equity legislation as "astounding". He further added that the party was treating its brown and white supporters as "voting cattle" by supporting legislation that was completely contrary to their concerns and interests.
The South African Institute of Race Relations also criticised the DA's new stance. In an article that first appeared in the Sunday Argus on November 3 Anthea Jeffery and Frans Cronje noted "DA support for this kind of racial engineering will come as a shock to many of its current supporters. It also betrays the non-racial principles for which the party has historically stood. But the DA's conduct is primarily a betrayal of the poor, who need sound alternatives to the ANC's failed empowerment policies, which have done little to assist them beyond welfare and free services."
On Saturday, November 2, Tony Leon tweeted that the "Employment Equity Act Amendment Bill recently approved by National Assembly is illiberal, racially coercive and anti-economic growth." In his column in Business Day on Tuesday November 5 he proceeded to criticise the DA's reversal of its historic opposition to this race-based legislation. He noted that in his opposition to the 1998 Act he had been staunchly supported by Helen Suzman, adding: "The DA's flip-flop on employment equity suggests that whatever its other lapses, the ANC now comprehensively dominates the intellectual space and defines terms of the debate within it....In seeking to offer itself as an agent for redress and to attract a new base, the DA is far too scared of having the race and anti-transformation labels stuck on it."
Leon's intervention moved the story to the front pages of the daily press. On November 6 Day Business Day reported in a front page (though not its lead) story that "Confusion over the Democratic Alliance's (DA's) stance on employment equity has split the party in the provinces, with some members of its traditional support base threatening to withhold their backing in next year's elections." The newspaper reported that "DA insiders in North West, Gauteng, the Free State and Limpopo say there have been complaints about the party's apparent about-turn on employment equity, which it has historically opposed." However DA North West spokesman Winston Rabotapi was quoted as defending the party's support for the Bill: "The DA has to represent national interests, we are not representing a few people. Redress is fundamentally important, we cannot remain static, we have to move with the times and transformation has been slow."
On Thursday morning November 7 Beeld led with Leon's criticism of the DA for its U-turn under the heading "‘Dán is DA nes die ANC': Leon kap sy party oor ‘ja' vir wet". Leon told the newspaper that the DA was at a "fork in the road. You can't be non-racial and at the same time support racialism. If it was a mistake, that is one thing, but you must then correct it and explain, otherwise we just have two versions of the ANC and voters no longer have any real choice."
That afternoon, following the conclusion of a DA parliamentary caucus meeting in the morning, which discussed the matter, DA leader Helen Zille announced her party was withdrawing its support for the Employment Equity Amendment Bill. In her weekly newsletter she stated that the DA "dropped the ball" on this legislation. "Not only is it based on racial coercion, it will undermine growth, reduce jobs, drive away investment and work against black empowerment. It will be subject to political manipulation, and undermine our chances of building the ‘capable state' which the National Development Plan identifies as a top priority." Drawing on the work of Malcolm Gladwell she explained that the DA's vote for the legislation in the National Assembly was the result of the accumulation of several small errors which ultimately led to a "plane crash".
"Our representatives on the portfolio committee were inadequately prepared. The many and varied submissions on the Bill were rushed through the portfolio committee in four meetings. The long parliamentary recess intervened before the Bill went to the National Assembly and so we were unable to debate the implications of the Bill adequately in caucus; when it did come before caucus, on the day it was due to be debated and voted on in the house, the explanatory memorandum produced by our spokespeople was defective. To make matters worse, we had five minutes (literally) to consider seven different Bills. A number of sequential errors. On their own, none would have led to a crash. In a cumulative sequence, they did. I, as the captain of this plane, must take responsibility. And I do. I believe it is best to acknowledge mistakes and seek to rectify them. My colleague, DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, has also acknowledged the deficiencies in the caucus management system that allowed for these errors to slip through and compound themselves. She and the Parliamentary leadership have proposed far reaching changes to the way Bills are "triaged" and managed from their inception through to their discussion in caucus. That is why we will propose amendments to the Employment Equity Act Amendment Bill in the NCOP and vote against the Bill if we do not succeed in effecting these changes. We will then also vote against the Bill when it returns to the National Assembly. We should have done this from the get-go because this Bill will harm rather than promote redress."
That same afternoon Democratic Alliance Federal Chairperson Wilmot James withdrew an op-ed that he had earlier submitted to Rapport, for publication on Sunday, defending the DA's decision to vote for the amendment bill in the National Assembly.
On Saturday November 9 Beeld reported - under the front page headline "Dis oorlog in DA" ("Its war in the DA") - that tension was running high in the DA after this week's "plane crash" in the DA. It reported that the caucus meeting on Thursday had been white hot and Zille had wanted to sack Chief Whip Watty Watson on the spot for the chaos over the party's support for the amendment bill. The report quoted one "veteran MP" saying she had never "seen Helen Zille so angry". Andricus van der Westhuizen and Sej Motau were also blamed for submitting an incomplete memorandum on the bill to caucus which failed to highlight the severe problems with the bill.
That afternoon, in a terse press statement, Lindiwe Mazibuko announced that the two were being shifted from the labour portfolio to economic development and were being replaced by Kenneth Mubu and Haniff Hoosen.
On Sunday November 10 Rapport quoted sources as saying that the previous week's events had been the biggest crisis yet for the DA.
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