Madly, the Democratic Alliance has taken to attacking its own history and liberal origins. The consequences will be bad for South Africa’s democracy and bad for the DA.
The Mail and Guardian recently reported the leader of the party, Mr Mmusi Maimane, as saying that the party will change in order to start caring about the poor – an astonishing insult to those who have voted for the party, or served in its leadership, up until now. Mr Maimane went further in saying that the DA had changed its historical position on race-based employment equity. Now, the policy of the DA is that ‘if there are two candidates of different races and they appear for the job, pick the black one’. He also said that DA believed that commercial farmers needed to dispose of land to their employees.
Hot on his heels, DA MP Mr Gordon Mackay approvingly quotes Mr Maimane in the Sunday Times as saying that ‘the gap in classical liberal ideology is its ability to address inequality and redress’. This, after Mr Mackay had argued in favour of ‘an African liberalism that does not entrench privilege’.
What utter tripe. Liberal principles such as free markets and property rights have proved to be central in raising global living standards. The improvements in socio-economic conditions that South Africa recorded since 1994 arose in the main from the limited liberalising reforms introduced by the African National Congress, which allowed markets to function more effectively, and people to accumulate wealth and property.
Even in the tough political terrain of land reform, research recently published by AgriSA establishes that a combination of expanded property rights and a market economy has done more to address historical land injustices than the redistribution policies of the government. Had the liberalising reforms introduced after 1994 been deeper, much more might have been achieved; South Africa’s post-2007 economic reversal can be attributed in the main to the ruling party’s reversal of its earlier reforms.
It takes only the most cursory analysis to see that the tenets of the classical liberal tradition – the importance of property rights, a market economy, free speech, and the rule of law in an environment where people are valued as individuals and not as members of groups – stand out starkly in every area where South Africa has made progress since 1994, while in every area that the country has failed, it is attacks on property rights, the undermining of market forces, and the erosion of the space for free speech that comes to the fore. This is not a question of being dogmatic – but what we now see in the DA is not flexibility, but rather a retreat from at least three of the tenets, while a fourth, free speech, is also in doubt if the line from some party insiders is to be believed.
Nor is it a question of being in favour or otherwise of empowerment – a trap the DA too easily falls into. It is a question of whether an empowerment policy built around liberal principles (such as the Economic Empowerment of the Disadvantaged or EED policy developed within the IRR) will be more effective than one built around the racial nationalism and state interventionism of the ruling party.
Even the champions of state-led welfare programmes have to admit that those programmes only became possible because the ANC’s limited liberalising reforms allowed the economy to perform better. It was, for example, by cutting debt levels in half after 1994 that much of the social grants programme was financed – not by raising levels of government expenditure as a share of GDP. Nor do South Africans want a future dependent on more state welfare and intervention in the economy.
Across the country we see people, if they have any choice in the matter, flocking to the private sector to access everything from security to medical services, education, and communication technology. It is not only the well-off who are served by markets and private providers. Many poor households access private medical services directly through out-of-pocket expenditure. Our own research shows that poor parents choose schools that give them control over the quality of education on offer to their children.
What makes the DA’s assaults on its liberal origins even madder is that the attacks reinforce the fallacious argument its critics rely on to discredit it; that classical liberalism offers nothing for the poor and serves merely to entrench historical wrongs. If the problem is one of the DA’s market research showing many people to perceive it as not caring for the poor, that can only be because the DA has not championed the benefits of classically liberal ideas sufficiently – something that will not be helped by its apologising for those ideas.
As bad as championing the cause of its critics the DA’s new positions also introduce absurdities. If the DA truly believes that where two people vie for a job the black person should always be employed, then why are so many senior jobs in the party filled by whites? Have there been no black applicants? If it is true that DA voters and leaders have historically been motivated by preserving historical injustice, then why should any decent person wish to associate with the party now?
A few days ago the DA published on its website a document praising seven former ANC leaders but not mentioning one former DA leader. Earlier this year, Mr Maimane told Parliament that it ‘pains me’ that the ANC is no longer the party of Oliver Tambo – a legitimate sentiment shared by scores of ANC supporters. But the question is whether it is appropriate to recast the DA as a throwback to a former ANC.
The liberal tradition has been such an important influence that any dilution of its presence in the political spectrum would be to weaken South Africa’s democracy. Yet, too often now, it is hard to escape the sense that the DA leadership have come, too easily, to share in the ANC’s historical disdain of the liberal tradition’s erstwhile principles, supporters, and leaders.
It takes so little to unmask Mmusi Maimane’s new policy framework as a poorly thought-through imitation of that of the ANC that the DA must be quite confident that President Zuma’s camp will win the ANC’s end-of-year leadership race.
For should Mr Cyril Ramaphosa win that race, it will be difficult to justify casting a vote for the counterfeit when the original is on offer. If anything, based on the manifesto he recently released, Mr Ramaphosa would appear to be no less liberal than the DA, and in many cases more so – in which case, DA supporters would be quite justified in voting for him.
Frans Cronje is the CEO of the IRR – a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.