NEWS & ANALYSIS

Maimane's me-tooism

John Kane-Berman writes on what the DA leader's complaints about enduring 'white privilege' miss

Mmusi Maimane fails to confront the dynamics of poverty and inequality

When the leader of the official opposition, Mmusi Maimane, claims that black South Africans have been locked out of economic opportunities for the last 24 years, one wonders where he has been all this time.

Reiterating what he said at Soshanguve on Freedom Day, he said last weekend that South Africa "remains a deeply unequal society in which black South Africans remain locked out of opportunities, even after 24 years of democracy". The "systemic consequences of apartheid still remain". Moreover, "the ANC has done little to break down this inequality".

Mr Maimane is wrong. In the first place, the ANC has done plenty to break down racial inequality. It has imposed increasingly onerous preferential procurement requirements designed to give privileges to black business. It has also enacted employment equity and black economic empowerment laws that are now backed by punitive sanctions. It has in addition implemented affirmative action throughout the public sector, whose employees have grown in number from 1.57 million when the ANC came to power to 2.04 million last year.

Partly as a consequence of these policies, the proportion of the top living standards category (LSM 10) accounted for by black Africans has risen from 5% in 2004 to 30% in 2015. In the next three highest LSMs, their proportion now heavily outnumbers that of whites. When Mr Maimane juxtaposes "white privilege and black poverty" as if nothing has changed, he ignores these dynamics.

He further ignores statistics about the Gini coefficient published last year by Statistics South Africa. These showed that overall income inequality narrowed between 2006 and 2015, but that among black Africans it widened.

The question is why income inequality among black Africans is widening. A big part of the answer is that their unemployment has increased from 3.2 million when the ANC came to power to 8.3 million last year.

A major cause of rising unemployment is the labour legislation enacted by the ANC government. Another contributory factor is the destructive power of trade unions. Yet another is the harm the ANC's racial legislation does to investment and growth.

So, yes, millions of black South Africans have been locked out of economic opportunities since 1994 (as of course they all were in earlier years). But Mr Maimane is wrong to make apartheid the scapegoat for ANC legislation. And he is wrong to ignore the fact that racial preferencing legislation also locks the white, coloured, and Indian/Asian minorities out of many opportunities in both the public and the private sector.

Mr Maimane claims the DA will break down the barriers of inequality. This promise is contradicted by the convoluted jobseekers' exemption certificate his party favours in its attempts to have it both ways on state-imposed minimum wages. This proposal – which will allow certain categories of jobseekers to apply for certificates exempting them from minimum wages – is yet another example of what critics have labelled as the DA's "ANC-lite" clothing.

Next year will be the 60th anniversary of the breakaway by Helen Suzman and other United Party (UP) MPs to form the Progressive Party, forerunner of today's DA. They did so because the UP could never bring itself to make a clean break with the National Party's racial policies. The UP was "NP-lite". If the DA is not to be an "ANC-lite" party on racial issues, it will have to do much more to differentiate itself from the ANC.

"Confronting black poverty", which Mr Maimane says he will do, entails liberalising the labour market, fixing education, building infrastructure, providing reliable electricity, attracting investment, and stimulating growth. "Confronting white privilege" is a great soundbite if you are into virtue signalling, but it will not do any of these other things.

The ANC's racial preferencing policies have compounded the economic damage inflicted by corruption, cadre deployment, and state capture. "Confronting white privilege" by pushing up taxes, tightening up racial quotas, or confiscating property will compound it even further. What actually needs to be confronted is the DA's ideological me-tooism and the resulting absence of credible and coherent policy.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.