NEWS & ANALYSIS

Has the DA just put a bullet through its brain?

James Myburgh says the party's support for the Employment Equity Amendment Bill will cost it dearly

On Thursday last week the National Assembly passed the Employment Equity Amendment Bill. It did so not just with the support of the ruling African National Congress but also of the Democratic Alliance. In order to understand the significance of this, and the potential implications for the opposition, it is necessary to first go back some fifteen years to when the original Employment Equity Act was first passed.

In the 1994 elections the then Democratic Party had almost been completely wiped out, receiving 1.7% of the vote, which gave it a mere 7 MPs in the National Assembly. This made it the fifth largest party in parliament. The National Party, by contrast, won 20.4 percent of the vote giving it 82 MPs in the National Assembly.

In 1996 the NP left the Government of National Unity following the adoption of the final constitution. In 1997 as the ANC's true racial nationalist agenda began to surface there was a concomitant realisation among white, and particularly Afrikaner voters, that the National Party had secured few real protections for them in the negotiations. One letter writer to Beeld noted: "The NP had received a mandate form us to protect and secure our interests at all times. De Klerk did not get a mandate to lead, like a Judas goat, his unsuspecting people to the political slaughterhouse."

That year De Klerk stepped down to be replaced by Marthinus van Schalkwyk. Though the Democratic Party under Tony Leon was steadily building up a reputation as an effective opposition, despite its tiny size, and had begun to pick up some support in the polls, it was still inconceivable that it could displace the NP as the official opposition. In 1997 Markdata polls gave the DP 2.1% of popular support to the now New National Party's 14.7%. 13.6% of respondents in a Markinor survey in November 1997 said they supported the NNP, while 3.4% said they backed the DP.

Yet, by the end of the following year the DP was level pegging with the NNP in the polls and in the 1999 elections it went on to displace it as the official opposition. See graph.

It did so largely on the strength of its opposition to the Employment Equity Bill that was introduced in draft form in December 1997 and passed in late 1998. The Act was one of a number of measures implemented by the ANC to gradually but purposefully limit the percentage of whites - across all spheres of society and at all levels - to their proportion of the total South African population.

In his speech to parliament, on August 20 1998, Tony Leon described the Bill as a "pernicious piece of social engineering: pious in intention but destructive in effect." It was legislation, he continued, that "ignores economic reality" and "does nothing for the poor, the marginalised, the rural masses in whose name the ANC govern." He added:

"Group-based thinking as proposed in the Bill formed the cornerstone of apartheid and we have a moral, if not a political, duty to bear witness against its re-introduction in the guise of getting rid of apartheid. Using this Bill in its present form as an instrument of legalised affirmative action is dangerous: lt is like a person who lights a match to inspect a firework."

Finally, Leon concluded, it is time that "sensible South Africans drew a line in the sand at this disastrous social engineering of government and the interests they represent..." Up until this year, the DP (later the DA) could claim as a result to be one of very few South African institutions to have opposed black racial nationalism with the same principled consistency that it had once opposed white racial nationalism. This was recognised and rewarded by white voters in the 1999 elections and they deserted the NNP and Freedom Front for the DP en masse. It would be no exaggeration to say then that the DA owes its existence as it is today to its opposition to this Act.

The Employment Equity Act subsequently proved to be essentially enabling legislation, depriving white and to a lesser extent other minority employees of any meaningful right to equal treatment. In state and parastatal institutions controlled by the ANC ideological considerations were made paramount and the goal of ‘demographic representivity' enforced ruthlessly. This has been one of the main contributory factors to the corruption and decay of these institutions at national, provincial and local government level. Ordinary white employees who decided to stick it out often had to resign themselves to being endlessly passed over for promotion despite the crippling skills shortages in these institutions and even if unfilled vacancies opened up above them.

In the private sector however the demand of the ANC that institutions conform, at all levels, to the racial proportions of the total population has been counter-balanced, to some degree, by considerations of basic economic reality. The racial composition of private businesses at senior and top management level - though it has changed significantly - continues to reflect the proportions of the pool of individuals with the necessary qualifications for those posts (i.e. taking into account such factors as age, experience, education and expertise) rather than of the population as a whole. As a result white males continue to be significantly ‘over-represented' - to use the traditional jargon of this type of racial nationalism - at these levels.

The Employment Equity Act Amendment Bill introduced last year and passed by the National Assembly on Thursday is an attempt to remedy this ghastly defect. The original 1998 Act contained certain concessions towards non-racial considerations. For instance it required that when determining whether an employer was implementing "equitable representation" satisfactorily labour department officials had to take into account not just the "demographic profile of the national and regional economically active population" but also "the pool of suitably qualified people from designated groups from which the employer may reasonably be expected to promote or appoint employees", "economic and financial factors" affecting the employer, "present and financial circumstances of the employer", and the "number of present and planned vacancies that exist in the various categories and levels, and the employer's labour turnover."

Under the amendment bill all the latter considerations have been excised. The labour department's ability to enforce "employment equity" has also been radically strengthened. According to the original Act the Director General of Labour could make a written recommendation to the employer setting out the steps they had to take "in connection with its employment equity plan," its implementation, as well as the time period in which this must occur.

If the employer fails to comply with such a request the Labour Department is now, according to the Amendment Bill, empowered to "apply to the Labour Court- (a) for an order directing the employer to comply with the request or recommendation; or (b) if the employer fails to justify the failure to comply with the request or recommendation, to impose a fine in accordance with Schedule 1 on the employer." Such fines range from "The greater of R1 500 000 or 2% of the employer's turnover" for a first offence up to "The greater of R2 700 000 or 10% of the employer's turnover'' for a fourth violation of the same provision within three years. The Bill will therefore allow the government to meddle in the affairs of every business with over fifty employees and potentially subject them to punitive sanctions if they do not comply with their demands.

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.

The Amendment Bill will, quite obviously, open the door to a dramatic escalation both in discrimination against individuals from racial minority groups as well as of state interference in the private sector. Given that South Africa already suffers from a severe skills shortage it will cause enormous damage to the cause of broader black advancement, which wholly depends on increased investment, a growing economy, rising educational standards and massive job creation.

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.

It is unlikely too that the DA will win over many additional black voters as a result of their new stance. One of the main concerns of such voters, according to Helen Zille, is that the DA would "bring back apartheid". Before this year one could have just laughed this off as the product of fifteen years of relentless and unscrupulous ANC propaganda. However, if the DA of today is willing to throw its own most loyal supporters to the wolves of Verwoerdian racialism, why should black voters ever trust it to defend their legitimate interests - were it ever to become politically inconvenient to do so?

The author worked as a parliamentary researcher in the Democratic Party between 1997 and 2001.

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