Which government is the Democratic Alliance fighting?
The campaign launched by the Democratic Alliance (DA) for the municipal elections on 3rd August this year started off with much promise. At the beginning of the year the party leader, Mmusi Maimane, unveiled a "jobs billboard" in Johannesburg designed to highlight his claim that 774 more people were joining the ranks of the jobless every day.
The DA, Mr Maimane said, would focus on "economic growth and job creation". Since Jacob Zuma became president 1.8 million South Africans had joined the ranks of the jobless, bringing total unemployment up to 8.4 million. Claims by the African National Congress (ANC) that it was concerned about jobs were a "cruel lie".
Since then, however, the official opposition seems to have shifted the blame for unemployment. The problem now seems to be less Mr Zuma's government than the previous one. The unemployment level of "well over 60%" among young black South Africans is now supposedly the result of apartheid. According to a recent statement issued by Mr Maimane, "apartheid's legacy of inequality" is also to blame for higher rates of poverty among blacks as well as for their smaller chances of getting into university.
It is of course difficult to disentangle South Africa's low economic growth and high unemployment rates from the previous government's policies. But the ANC has been in power for 22 years, during which time unemployment on the expanded definition has risen from 3.7 million to its current level of 8.9 million, while the unemployment rate has risen from 32% to 36%.
The ANC obviously inherited a major problem. This was partly its own doing because of the campaign of economic isolation that it waged against South Africa, reducing trade and investment. But since 1994 it has enacted numerous new laws damaging to investment and growth, and therefore to the generation of jobs. These include not only labour legislation but also racial laws and other measures tying businesses up in red tape.
The ANC also inherited a poor education system, though one whose financial inequalities the previous government had begun to reduce. But progress was stalled, partly because of the imposition by the ANC of the strategy of "no education before liberation". Since coming to power the ANC has had ample time to make major inroads into the legacy of Bantu Education. Instead, it has played around with fanciful notions such as "outcomes-based education" and closed down teacher training colleges. The result is that a great many black schoolchildren find themselves in the situation of "no education after liberation" either.
This is all a tragedy. Seldom, if ever, in history can a government have come to power anywhere with as much goodwill from around the world as was showered upon the ANC in 1994. South Africa had every chance of becoming the economic and political success story of the African continent. This opportunity has been squandered by a never-ending stream of policies hostile to the private enterprise on which growth and prosperity depend. Without this hostility, much greater progress would have been made in reducing wealth, educational, employment, and other backlogs.
When he launched his jobs campaign at the beginning of the year. Mr Maimane said the ANC and its alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, were "ideologically confused". Maybe. But the DA itself is both strategically and ideologically confused. By blaming the country's major ills on apartheid, Mr Maimane lets the ANC and its partners off the hook. He also buys into their strategy of making the previous government the scapegoat for all their own failures.
It makes no sense for an opposition party to fight an election in this way. It should be fighting not the previous government, but the present one.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.