These guys are chasing numbers, not ideas

27 January 2019 - 00:00

DA MP Gwen Ngwenya's resignation as the party's head of policy has triggered spirited debate about whether her departure is a good thing or not. The kind people of the centre-Left say good riddance because she was "anti-transformation". Her defenders, I suppose a bit like me (all over the place) ask what is so unreasonable about looking for progressive economic policies that grow the market without being based on race?
I assume that is what she was trying to do. In August last year she wrote a piece for Business Day arguing that, as she says in her resignation letter to DA leader Mmusi Maimane, "BEE had not lived up to expectations and that the DA was exploring a policy alternative. None of that was not true. At the Federal Council in July I had been given a mandate to explore a non-racial alternative.
"Furthermore, I quoted [Maimane] . saying, 'We need a wholesale change in empowerment policies, to move away from race-based policies that enable elite enrichment, towards policies that fundamentally break down the system of deprivation that still traps millions of South Africans in poverty'."
The article led to a row. Many black DA members who have to sell the party during campaigning predictably didn't like it.
The DA is trying to build its black vote. It must make black promises. Ngwenya didn't want to and she and DA federal executive chairman James Selfe issued a statement on August 6. "We have always said we aim to achieve a society in which race is not a determinant of opportunity," it said. But they were weasel words. "The DA is, therefore, seeking ways to broaden economic inclusion for those that have been previously excluded by virtue of race, but also gender and disability, to name but a few."
Perhaps, except that Ngwenya won't be designing those ways. Instead, Selfe will, and the DA's chief executive, Paul Boughey (how many DA voters would recognise this man, central to their political lives, on the street?) will.
The party leader, Maimane, will too, but don't get excited. These guys are chasing numbers, not ideas. They are addicted to spin just as much as the ANC is.
Expect their manifesto to be heavy on equal opportunity, which may land well in Cape Town but means absolutely nothing in Limpopo or North West.
Having been mandated to change policy in July and then prevented from doing so in October, Ngwenya's frustration, particularly at Selfe, is clear in her letter to Maimane.
"The result of communicating [in Business Day] what was a party mandate and the words of the Federal Leader was a public repudiation of my position by the Federal [executive] Chairperson," she writes.
The DA is complex. The journalist who knows it best is Jan-Jan Joubert, whose brilliant 2018 book Who Will Rule in 2019? makes it absolutely clear that while Selfe and the DA leadership will have nothing to do with the ANC should coalitions be required, they are more than happy to work with the EFF.
Joubert quotes Selfe: "Working with the EFF [after the 2016 local elections, when some DA mayors live off tacit EFF support] is complex for obvious ideological reasons."
And then this bit: "But we like working with them [the EFF] because they stick to a deal and speak openly. That is good enough for me, personally."
There are already good enough reasons not to trust people who say "me, personally" anyway. But what Selfe is saying is that if Gauteng's ANC premier David Makhura falls short of 50% this year the DA is not available to deal with him. Instead, it will either allow an EFF/ANC provincial government or try to deal with the EFF itself.
I know this is confusing. The ANC is a disgrace. The EFF is a clear danger to the economy. But unless the DA can begin to describe a much, muchmore inclusive and democratic economy - where it recognises the differences between, and solutions to, poverty, inequality and unemployment, where it keeps the market and the profit motive alive and ensures millions more people have a real stake in the companies they work for or the land they live on - it will die away.
Gwen Ngwenya was looking for a way for capitalism, for the market, to include and lift the lives of all South Africans. But the DA is in love with the capitalism it knows. The one we inherited from Victorian England. Top-down, exclusive and patronising. That's the opportunity economy.
Good luck with it.

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