The DA in crisis (I)

The first in a two part series by RW Johnson on what is happening to the official opposition

The Democratic Alliance bids farewell to liberalism

The decision by the Democratic Alliance to support the Equity Employment Amendment Bill (EEAB) is a historic moment, an enormous defeat for the liberal tradition and a victory for apartheid-era racial classification. The DA fiercely opposed the original Equity Employment Bill in 1998, saying it would be both damaging and would offend every liberal principle.

The new Amendment Bill is far worse in that it seeks to extend the principle of demographic representivity, which has crippled the public sector, to the private sector. Yet, despite this, the DA, in its quest for black votes, voted for the Bill. Some weeks later and only after considerable pressure from appalled DA activists and voters, the party leader, Helen Zille, did a 180 degree return and said that the party should not have supported the Bill or, indeed, an almost equally noxious BEE Bill. By then, however, the damage was long done.

This suggests a fundamental sea-change in what had been, until now, the principal inheritor of the liberal tradition in South Africa. In the sort of party that the DA - or the old Progs - used to be, both these Bills - and particularly the EEAB a Bill like this would have been thrown out in two seconds flat because it represented the very antithesis of liberal thought. The fact that the party could line up behind these Bills during a period many weeks long is a clear pointer to the fact that it has simply lost its bearings.

Helen Zille provides a long list of excuses for the EEAB fiasco - inadequate preparation, a recess intervening, hurried meetings, defective memos and the like. As for the similarly hideous BEE Bill, apparently the DA representatives were trying to seek consensus with the Minister, Rob Davies and relied on his verbal assurances. But Davies is one of the most hardline Communists in the government. What on earth was the DA doing in trying to reach a consensus with him? And how can it possibly be surprised that they failed to do so? This is just beating around the bush. To be succinct: the DA used to have liberal instincts and now it doesn't.

In any case, even a quick glance through the EEAB reveals how immensely damaging it will be to the private sector. The application of strict demographic representivity at every level, means that 75% of a company's managers and directors will have to be African. Given the narrow pool of available talent this will inevitably mean that businesses are asked to the hand over their hard-earned assets to the management of people not chosen on merit but on skin colour. Only 3% of Africans have tertiary qualifications and only 25% of Africans fall into the 35-64 age group from which managers or directors are normally chosen. Thus, if this requirement is observed it will inevitably lead to the appointment of unskilled and unqualified managers.

It is very difficult indeed to imagine why any domestic or foreign investor would knowingly expose himself to such a regime. Why on earth invest in South Africa if one immediately loses control over how one's top management is picked? And if one is legally required to appoint managers who may not be competent? The only companies likely to survive this will be those who have listed in London and thus have their headquarters staff there, beyond the reach of this legislation. Already one can find instances of South African companies moving their head offices to Mauritius, Botswana or Kenya simply in order to avoid the constraints of South African affirmative action legislation. (Coca-Cola, for example, has moved its head office to Nairobi.) That could now become a flood.

That is, even a cursory glance at this piece of legislation reveals that it constitutes by far the most damaging blow anyone has struck against the South African economy since the sanctions era of the 1980s. Even if the DA could swallow all the racially based criteria in the Bill (as, for a long time, it did) surely simple economics should have meant it was rejected out of hand? The Nigerian billionaire, Aliko Dangote, recently warned that South Africa's Black Economic Empowerment policies were extremely repellent to foreign investors such as himself, but the effects of BEE pale in comparison to the effects of such an extreme affirmative action strait-jacket. One may be sure that if Mr Dangote invested in South Africa he would want the best managers possible, irrespective of all questions of skin colour, to manage his assets.

The ANC: Addicted to apartheid

The fact that the ANC government should pass such damaging legislation can only be explained by a combination of electoral pressures and economic illiteracy. In effect, to support such a law one has to be of the Jimmy Manyi school of thought - expressed when he was Director-General of the Department of Labour - which holds that South Africa's skills shortage is no more than "an urban legend". Given that economists of every political persuasion are in complete agreement that the skills shortage is both very real and large, this can only be attributed to sheer ideological wilfulness.

Electorally, such a policy would have great appeal to the rising black middle class which very largely consists of those who have benefited from affirmative action in the public service. They would naturally love the idea of the entire private sector being opened up by similar policies so that they and their sons and daughters and cousins could benefit from this large increase in opportunities without serious competition from the racial minority groups. For the same reason, this will also mean the political (ANC) colonization of small and medium businesses which have remained happily non-political until now.

One is now well used to the ANC being the party of racial classification and racial distinction. In effect, it is addicted to apartheid - it automatically looks to allocating assets and opportunities along racial and, increasingly, along tribal lines. It has taken entire apartheid policies such as job reservation and applied them in mirror image. It effectively oversees the removal of thousands of white farmers from the countryside - a process of white spot removal. It has taken functioning schools and hospitals and turned them into dysfunctional Bantustan institutions.

It has even - against the advice of the entire higher education sector - decided to found new universities in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga, institutions which are obviously going to be merely new versions of the hopelessly inferior tribal colleges. Like the Bantustan governments of old, the ANC depends increasingly on the rural chiefs - les grands electeurs - to whip in support for them. More and more obviously with every passing year, the ANC becomes a Bantustan government - corrupt, tribalist, neo-patrimonial, unconcerned with democratic norms. To such a government, policies based on racial classification come naturally. Indeed, in only a slightly more disguised way, so do policies of tribal classification.

Which is well and fine if one likes that sort of thing. But for the DA this Bill was, even at first sight, the purest poison. Apart from its damage to the economy and the nation, such a law is, by definition, intended to discriminate hard against whites, Indians and Coloureds, the DA's core constituency. Even if the DA was motivated only by electoral expediency, rejecting this Bill should have been an immediate knee-jerk response.

Moreover, the EEAB is clearly a step back towards the apartheid past, with the wholesale application of a job reservation scheme to all employment, public and private. And this at the very time that more and more American states are dispensing with affirmative action and when the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is sailing through the US Senate - with bipartisan support. Again, these were reasons for an immediate knee-jerk rejection had the DA's liberal instincts been intact. Quite clearly, they are not.

What is happening to the DA?

I asked a senior former DA MP how to understand the party's evolution. "The DA is now like the old United Party", he said. "Its waters have been so muddied by compromise and electoral opportunism that no one in it is quite sure what it stands for any more. The UP wanted to be anti-apartheid but at the same time it was frightened of the Nats' swart gevaar tactics, so it would come up with ludicrous slogans like ‘White Leadership with Justice'. The DA is just the same. It is frightened of the ANC accusing it of racism, so it supports BEE and affirmative action. But since you can't have either of these things without having some system of racial classification, this leaves the DA simultaneously promising to be non-racist AND to bring back racial classification as the basis for policy. Under Leon the party knew what it stood for. Under Zille it is rudderless. Helen has, in effect, become De Villiers Graaff."

This may be a somewhat jaundiced view, but clearly the party has evolved some way from what it used to be. It now attempts to claim that it, and not the ANC, stands for Mandela's values and his heritage. In general, it attempts to cover itself in glowing references to Mandela much as parties in other countries "cover themselves with the flag".

Yet when Mandela was actually President, the DA's predecessor, the DP, was highly critical of his administration and it criticised Mandela personally for his hobnobbing with, and fund-raising from despots like Gadaafi and Suharto. So there has been a complete (and unexplained) change here. No wonder there is now such uncertainty over policy, with 180 degree turns and the like. This is indeed a bit like the situation which Colin Eglin describes in the United Party after its 1958 defeat which led De Villiers Graaff to set up a committee on how better to present party policy.

"Its work proved fruitless: the majority of its members argued that before it could decide on how to present UP policy, it had to know what the policy was. By this they meant, not only where the party stood, but also where it was heading and what the implications would be....."[1]

This may make the UP sound rather comical. Even the UP, however, never voted a Bill all the way through Parliament before deciding that it was actually against it.

A key indicator of the DA's evolution is that it has begun to propagate a completely fictitious version of history. Thus the DA Chairman, Dr Wilmot James, refers to South Africa's past as "three hundred years of asset-stripping". Dr James is an intelligent and well-read man and he quite certainly knows that this is nonsense.

If all that was going on was asset-stripping, how does one explain all the investment which resulted in Africa's largest housing stock and best infrastructure, its best universities and busiest ports, its mines, industries and farms and so on? It's not just that this is hyperbolic rhetoric, clearly aping the ANC; it's also - like the ANC's rhetoric - a deliberate distortion of reality.

Similarly, I was somewhat startled when talking to Ms Lindiwe Mazibuko - for whom I have the highest regard - to be told that it was accepted fact that the ANC had abolished apartheid and also that the DA approved of everything done by the Mandela administration of 1994-1999, with its critique only really dating from the Mbeki period. 

Ms Mazibuko was only ten years old in 1990 when De Klerk made his epochal speech announcing the end of apartheid and the opening of negotiations fora democratic constitution. Anyone who lived through that period as an adult will know that De Klerk effectively abolished apartheid, particularly since after his speech no attempt was made to enforce laws like the Group Areas Act. The truth is that by 1994, when the ANC came to power, the job was pretty much done.

As for the Mandela administration, we all applauded his stress on reconciliation but that is not, unfortunately, the whole story. The administration began with the Shell House massacre in which ANC gunmen shot and killed IFP marchers in the streets of Johannesburg. The investigating judge dismissed as fiction the claim that the marchers were about to attack the ANC's HQ. Mandela simply brazened this out, refusing to hand over either the gunmen or their weapons, or indeed those who held some IFP activists for some time afterwards, imprisoning them in cages and torturing them. Soon thereafter Mandela announced a plan to shrink teacher numbers by getting rid of all the most senior and qualified teachers, a move which crippled the education system. The administration also shamefully tried to ignore the Aids problem, with the result that it got exponentially worse.

In addition, it was under this administration that the first Equity Employment Act was passed despite Tony Leon's furious opposition. This act effectively destroyed the public service. In addition, of course, Mandela's speech to the ANC's Mafikeng conference of 1997 was probably the most illiberal ever given by any ANC leader, accusing the Opposition, NGOs and criminals of all being party to a giant conspiracy against the ANC.

Perhaps most notable of all, it was under the Mandela administration that the enormously corrupt arms deal took place. To this day we do not know whether Mandela benefited from the deal. All one can say is that in the typical Third World arms deal there have always been big pay-offs for the Defence Minister and the President. Perhaps Mandela was different. But even so, this scandalous abuse took place on his watch. For any liberal to argue that his administration was beyond reproach is simply incomprehensible.

However, once you start this game of historical revision, there is a tendency to bracket-creep. Thus the DA's Gauteng leader, Mmusi Maimane, has only praise for Thabo Mbeki - "During his presidency, we saw progress." Yet the DP and later the DA were bitterly critical of the Mbeki administration - over affirmative action, over BEE, over his Aids denialism, over his support for Mugabe and over the failure of governance which resulted in major power cuts.

"In those days", Maimane adds, "I was an ANC voter" - suggesting that he was tolerant, to say the least, of AIDS denialism, a pro-Mugabe stance and such nonsense as Mbeki's paranoid "President's plot". Yet Mbeki's Aids denialism cost some 365,000 lives according to the Harvard study. The truth is that Mbeki is extremely fortunate not to be facing charges for crimes against humanity at the Hague. How on earth can one of the leaders of a liberal party - unrebuked by the party - support things like this?

The DA leadership is now in a very messy state. Hitherto the party has always chosen its leaders on merit but in effect Helen Zille has all but promised that the next leader will be black. A determined - but absurd - attempt was made to give away the party leadership to the arrogant and autocratic Mamphela Ramphele, who has been a failure in every institution that employed her.

Now we seem to face a situation in which the likely contest for the post-Zille DA leadership is between Mazibuko and Maimane. Both contenders are a mere 33, at least 10 years too young and both have a notion of recent South African history which could easily sink the party. If one of the key tasks of leadership is to prepare the succession, this is not a task that has been performed well.

Click here to read the second article in this series.


[1] C. Eglin, Crossing the Borders of Power. The Memoirs of Colin Eglin, p.64.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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