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DA policy conference: Ditching race-based policies amid a racial storm

DAIL MAVERICK / 08 SEPTEMBER 2020 - 18.57 / GREG NICHOLSON

The DA claims it has found a way to address economic injustice while discarding race in its policies. The party is determined to move beyond race, but seems inextricably defined by racial divisions.

DA federal council chairperson Helen Zille and the party’s head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, seem tired of talking about race, at least when it comes to incorporating racial identity in the party’s policies and whether racial divisions have contributed to a string of high-profile resignations.

DA Federal Executive Council chairperson Helen Zille. (Photo: Gallo Images/Thulani Mbele)

In a press conference on Monday, they were asked about little else.

They were speaking after the DA concluded its first policy conference this weekend. About 110 delegates met online and voted for party values that acknowledged the abhorrent influence racism has had on society.

At the same time, delegates supported policies that dismissed the use of racial categories as a means to identify and uplift the disadvantaged, who are almost exclusively those who suffered under apartheid’s racist policies or their lasting impact. That is to say, black people.

“We hope that it really draws the line in the sand and it sets a new direction for South Africa where we are not forced into this false binary option of choosing between non-racialism or redress. We’ve actually gone the ambitious and imaginative route, saying we can have a policy that does both,” said Ngwenya on the DA’s new economic justice policy.

The DA has worked hard over the past decade to dismiss the accusation that it will, as detractors say, “bring back apartheid”.

After the 2016 local government elections, when it managed to form coalitions to run Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, major metros where the ANC dropped under 50%, the party looked like it might be able to shed its baggage and potentially challenge the ANC in provinces other than the Western Cape.

That was before the DA tanked in the 2019 elections, before the resignations of Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, Athol Trollip, John Moodey and a host of party staffers, before Helen Zille returned from her post at the Institute of Race Relations, before she doubled down on her colonialism comments, and before the DA lost each of the metros it gained in 2016.

Now, the eternal question asked of the DA has returned as strongly as ever: Does it actually care about the majority of South Africans and, if so, are they or the country’s wealthy, white minority its priority?

Ngwenya believes that’s a false dichotomy. The most significant introduction in the DA’s new policy proposes replacing broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) and quotas for race and gender with a metric to recognise corporate contributions to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“I keep being forced into this binary where the assumption is that it’s not going to address the material conditions of South Africans, but it will. That’s precisely what the policy addresses,” said Ngwenya.

Rather than continuing with a form of BBBEE while cutting down on the associated corruption, the DA argues it has found a way to boost economic growth while rewarding companies for helping to address the root causes of economic exclusion.

Black ownership requirements would be scrapped and government procurement would target companies that are competent and contribute to meeting the SDGs. Other interventions such as social grants would be based on a range of indices to measure need.

“If you only use race, you end up with Jacob Zuma, for example, saying he was only applying BBBEE when he ensured that all of his network got tenders and contracts and got into top positions so they could manipulate systems and create looting channels from the state,” claimed Zille.

The DA policy cites international examples of using SDG metrics to evaluate companies’ impact on societies, but those efforts remain nascent and the party has not clearly explained how it would work in South Africa.

“Yes, there is a policy to deal with apartheid inequality and it’s the one we passed on Sunday,” said Ngwenya.

The DA proposes a raft of policy interventions on issues such as health, education and keeping families together, but the new policy is centred on promoting economic growth through removing the burden of BBBEE on companies.

One consistent claim from the black DA leaders who have resigned in the past year, however, has been that the party has shifted its focus to securing its base rather than focusing on broad growth.

The ANC’s economic transformation policies have largely failed to make a significant impact, but the DA’s SDG ideas, which are, so far, high-level and lacking in specific detail, appear to entrust society’s development and transformation to the business sector, much of which benefited from apartheid, fails to meet transformation targets even when pressured, and promotes glossy upliftment programmes while continuing to exploit workers, communities and the environment.

Ngwenya’s team should be credited for trying to draft a new framework for economic growth and inclusion, but the SDG model looks like it was drafted to first appease the business community while leaving details of how it would realistically benefit the majority of South Africans to a later date.

Again, it raises the question of which demographic the DA is trying to represent.

A review on the party’s 2019 electoral decline, commissioned by the DA and authored by Ryan Coetzee, Tony Leon and Michiel le Roux, found there was “a significant shift away from the DA among white voters, particularly white Afrikaans voters”.

Conservative white voters shifted their support to the Freedom Front Plus as Maimane’s DA struggled to articulate its policies on issues like BBBEE and tried to appeal to black voters by taking stances on issues of racism, some of which backfired. The party failed to increase support and in 2019 only 4% of its votes came from black voters, down from a peak of 5.9% in 2016.

Zille on Monday suggested that the black leaders who left the party in the wake of those elections weren’t pressured to leave and had the agency to make their own choices. She dismissed allegations she and her allies were purging opponents and claimed members often claimed race or gender discrimination when personal or disciplinary matters led them to resign.

One consistent claim from the black DA leaders who have resigned in the past year, however, has been that the party has shifted its focus to securing its base rather than focusing on broad growth.

DA leadership candidate Mbali Ntuli, who is running against the party’s interim leader, John Steenhuisen, suggested as much when she launched her campaign, saying, “I think this election is going to determine whether we want the DA to stabilise and sort of stay where it is or if we want to inspire people to come back to the DA.”

The party will elect leaders at its federal congress, beginning on 30 October.

It’s unlikely that those elections, or the adoption of its new policy, will quell infighting or solve the DA’s challenge of how to embrace “non-racialism” while maintaining its voting base, which is almost exclusively made up of minorities.

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LINK : https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-09-08-da-policy-conference-ditching-race-based-policies-amid-a-racial-storm/

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