On the South African right

Charles Simkins notes that a state without means of change is without means of conservation

Left and right in South African politics today – The right

12 June 2019


The first brief in this pair discussed how the South African left evolved and some of the current issues facing it. This brief deals with the issues facing the right.


African nationalism draws a strong contrast between colonialism-segregation-apartheid, as a period of utter darkness, and post-apartheid South Africa, an era of light. The right in this narrative is represented as wishing to restore apartheid. This is a canard. The probability of a restoration of apartheid is precisely zero, and has been for the last quarter of a century. The circumstances in which it evolved have disappeared from the world, and they will never return. There are some who have a nostalgia for apartheid.

But as the contemporary United Kingdom shows, nostalgia does not constitute a political programme. Moreover, it is impossible not to note that the post-apartheid light has dimmed a lot, especially over the last decade. As our eyes grow accustomed to the gloom, glimmers of light from before 1994 become more visible; had they been absent, a negotiated transition would have been impossible.

Still, the canard has been effective in inducing reluctance of the right to identify itself as such. The leader of the DA has been reported as saying:

We dare not pander to the left or right; we must occupy the centre[1].

But it is not clear who the right is to which the DA must not pander. One clearly relevant criterion for identifying the right is opposition to changing Section 25 of the Constitution. On 4 December 2018, the ACDP, COPE, DA, IFP and VF+ voted against adoption of the Constitutional Review Committee’s report on land expropriation without compensation. Unlike the left, the right on this criterion is not embedded in a nationalist movement. In political terms, Afrikaner nationalism is a spent force.

The right’s parliamentary representation since 1994 can be identified[2] as follows:

Table 1 - Parliamentary seats, 1994 to 2019






















COPE (since 2014)











































Can one discern principles for the right which do not substantially cut across the positions of any of its components? The following are possible:

1. Lowering the political and policy salience of race. The United States Chief Justice, John Roberts, maintains that the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. Not everyone agrees, and given our history, lowering the salience of race will be slow at best. Lowering the salience of race does not imply lack of attention to issues of poverty and social inclusion, but it does imply using criteria other than race as a basis for entitlements and obligations.

This is already the case of social grants, where income, age, health status and need for care are criteria for allocation, not race. Social grants are disproportionally allocated to black people, but blackness is not the criterion for assistance. Need is. Equally, taxation is based on income, consumption and profit. The incidence of taxation falls disproportionally on white people, but whiteness is not the criterion for obligation. Given that the high salience of race nearly tore the country apart, the right could argue for removal of race as a criterion for every policy, opposing every effort at political mobilization on the basis of race.

2. The roles of the market and the state should accord with normative prescripts based on mainstream economic theory. The term ‘neoliberalism’ has become a word to frighten small children withIt is at once vague and threatening. The right would do well not to use this term as a self-description of its economic policy and to resist attempts by others to impute the description to it.The functions of the state are (i) to produce public goods[3], chiefly the rule of law, then competent, clean and politically neutral public administration, macroeconomic stability and care of the environment, (ii) to do what it can to overcome the effects of market failure, by way of competition policy, regulation of monopolies, and find ways of dealing with negative externalities, such as pollution[4], and (iii) to set the point on the equity-efficiency tradeoff in line with voter preferences[5]. But while markets sometimes fail, they often succeed, and when they do, they are superior.

3. Concentrate on economic growth. It is not for lack of advice that pro-growth policy has been poor. It is for the lack of following it. The right could advocate that recommendations of the past ten or fifteen years be dusted off and brought to bear on the contemporary situation. And it could point out that economic growth cuts through the need for all kinds of complicated state intervention in the labour market. The country has been here before. The PACT government introduced the ‘civilized labour policy’ immediately on election in 1924 and went on producing a range of schemes to try and support its constituency into the Depression. With the onset of rapid growth, these interventions vanished like the morning mist. Nothing transforms like growth.

4. Avoid risky large-scale adventures. This is a central principle of conservatism. Some examples of risky projects are:

4.1 Heterodox macroeconomic policy. In some contexts, for example, macroeconomic populism can stimulate growth in the short term. But the right could point out that it always ends in tears as the ignored constraints bite, and the economy tanks. In contemporary South Africa, it would not produce even short term growth. The loss of our last investment grade ratings would swiftly follow, with knock-on effects on monetary policy, and international and domestic sentiment would plummet, with adverse consequences for investment.

4.2 Large scale rural land reform, which ignores the failures of the last quarter of a century. The right could observe that new farmers need a co-ordinated and expensive complementary package of inputs, the cost of which should be weighed up against the benefits of alternative use of funds, such as a better urban settlement policy.

4.3National Health Insurance, as it is currently envisaged by the government. The right could make the point that focusing on changing institutions and funding arrangements in the health system is an inappropriate response to operational failures on the ground.

4.5The Medupi and Kusile megaprojects have contributed to Eskom’s current dire financial state.

5. Carve out positions on social policy and service delivery. Sixty per cent of government expenditure in the 2019 Budget was allocated to social services[6]. Determining how that money should be spent is a key site of political contestation. The right could argue, for instance, that the delivery of nearly a million houses from 1994 to 1999 was the result of maximizing the contribution of the private sector.

The right could argue that health policy should be developed in co-operation with the professional bodies rather than through coercion. It could suggest that the role of the private sector in post-school education should be promoted. There are many opportunities here. Without seizing them, the right cedes key terrain to its critics.

In general, the right should pay attention to Edmund Burke’s observation that a state without the means of change, is without the means of its own conservation. Conservatism does not imply standing pat, and it is not the case that nothing constructive can be done about land reform or the provision of health, or even macroeconomic stability from the perspective of the right. More coherent proposals by parliamentary parties of the right requires more investment. But it would pay off.


The consistent policy of the ANC- Nelson Mandela’s visit to Betsy Verwoerd notwithstanding - has been to marginalize the right and to represent it as being a permanent and ignorable minority. But African nationalism itself is under greater pressure than at any time since 1994, caught between a rock and a hard place. What it will do, and not do, has become unpredictable. In these circumstances, the influence of the right will depend on its development of three characteristics: panache, agility and courage. Panache comes from self-confidence, and projects it, agility is required by unpredictability, and courage is required not only to oppose the government, but to support it when it is right. What will not work is simple insistence that the right are good people, and will govern better. The electorate needs to know what it intends to do.

Charles Simkins is Head of Research at the Helen Suzman Foundation. 

[1]MmusiMaimane’s letter to the DA, Politicsweb, 14 May 2019

[2] The AEB (AfrikaanseEenheidsbeweging) is included in the 1999 results, the only election in which they gained a seat.

[3] There is a conceptual distinction between public goods and publicly provided goods. Public goods are non-excludable (by their nature, no-one can be excluded from enjoying them) and non-rival in consumption (A’s enjoyment of a public good does not preclude B’s enjoyment of the same good). Publicly provided goods are goods produced in the public sector. That they are not the same is acknowledged by the government which from time to time mentions the possibility of getting rid of non-core publicly owned entities, but never gets around to doing it.

[4] The most elegant way of dealing with pollution is to create property rights in it – the cap and trade approach. Thus the government decides on a tolerable level of pollution, auctions rights to produce it and allows holders of rights to trade them. This limits pollution to the desired level at the lowest cost, since there will be an incentive for entities which can abate pollution only at high cost to purchase rights from entities facing lower abatement costs.

[5] Public choice theory suggests that the preference which will count is that of the median voter, whose support parties compete to capture in order to win elections.

[6]National Treasury, Budget Review, 2019