Columnists

DA long on jobs, short on equality

Richard Calland

With the publication of the Democratic Alliance's growth and jobs plan, the recalibration of SA politics continues apace, writes Richard Calland.

The DA is correct to focus on unemployment, but its hostility to Cosatu and the unions could be a tactical error. (Madelene Cronjé)

Note: recalibration, not realignment. The realignment has already happened, first with the ANC's unrelenting strategy of accumulation during the 1990s and the early part of this century, which has stretched its ideological boundaries to breaking point; second, with the DA's more recent acquisition of smaller parties and the consolidation, thereby, of the opposition.

In 2014, the electorate will be presented with essentially a two-party contest at the ballot box. Notwithstanding its impressive gains in the 2009 national election (rising to 16% of the vote) and the 2011 local government elections (23%), the DA still has a mountain to climb.

Having shown its potential for soaking up the majority of the (racial) minorities – which amounts to about 25% – and some black lower-middle-class and yuppie votes in new urban suburbs, the DA has now presented its plan for winning working-class votes.

For good reason, the plan focuses on job creation: the number one concern for the great majority of South Africans. It seeks to emulate the "Asian tiger" model, aiming for a figure of 8% growth, which senior DA figures admit is barely plausible given the twin pinch of global economic recession and the lack of skills in the South African labour market.

As the DA is understandably eager to point out, the diverse consortium of interest groups that shelter within the ANC's commodious political bosom means that producing clarity of policy is generally beyond it.

Political marketing
On the pages of this newspaper last week, Lynnley Donnelly was certainly willing to buy this line. Whether you like it or not, she wrote, the DA has one single, unified vision for economic development and that gives it an advantage over the ruling party. To a point, so it does. It is certainly true that in terms of political marketing the DA's task will be easier. And, by using the launch of the jobs plan as the start of what is clearly intended to be a long-haul approach to campaigning for the general election in two years' time, it is doing a lot of things right.

Presumably, in due course a suitably pithy campaign slogan will emerge from the bowels of Helen Zille's kitchen cabinet and that will place the growth and jobs plan at the very centre of its election-campaign strategy.

I would hate to be seen to be doing its job for it, but one could well imagine a variation of the 1979 Tory party slogan "Labour isn't working" – displayed as it was on massive billboards above a long snaking queue of unemployed people at the dole office – that was so effective in bringing Margaret Thatcher to power in Britain.

By election day on April 2014, the electorate will be absolutely clear what the DA's position is on the most important issue facing the country, not least because of the DA's decision to take on the unions and use Cosatu's opposition to the youth wage subsidy as a rallying point for the DA's alternative approach to job creation. By then, the ANC's "Together we can do more" will have paled and even "A better life for all" may have passed its sell-by date.

The DA's plan deserves to be taken seriously and to be seriously examined. One downside of announcing its plan so early is that it provides critics with a long period in which to pull it apart. Some have already enthusiastically commenced this assignment.

Good cause
Writing in the online South African  Civil Society Information Service (sacsis.org.za), the World Wide Fund for Nature's Saliem Fakir argues that "part of the problem is that the DA's document assumes that ... there must be strict separation of state and the church, so it must also be between state and economy".

This is not just a good sound bite. As Fakir then points out: "Ironically, the document points to Asian successes as examples, but fails to see that, if anything, strong state intervention and strategies of capital accumulation with a statecentric and aligned private sector was the route to Asian success."

Equally, the DA rails, again with perfectly good cause, against the state of school education and the catastrophic consequences for the economy, advancing the case for a massive investment in maths and science in terms of teachers and specialist schools. Clearly, the state needs to drive this process. Who else does the DA think will do so?

And, as the DA's own Wilmot James has noted, "there are no short cuts" in this regard. Sadly, it is hard to see how South Africa can realistically catch up in anything other than the long term if it cannot even get textbooks to pupils – or determine who should be held responsible for the failure to do so.

The DA plan is also weak on structural questions, in particular agriculture and mining. South Africa's economy has long been dependent on the extractive industries and especially fossil fuels. It faces big decisions about the sustainability of that dependence that, thus far, neither the ANC government nor the private sector appear willing to acknowledge or even properly understand in terms of viable alternatives. Now we can add the DA to the list of denialists.

Tactical wisdom
Finally, back to the unions and Zille's Thatcherite preoccuption with them, which this column has previously questioned in terms of tactical wisdom. In its apparent "witch-hunt", as Steve Friedman writing in Business Day named it, the DA fails to appreciate the positive as well as progressive role the unions play in protecting workers from exploitation and how they thereby continue to absorb social pressures that would otherwise explode.

This, then, takes one to the ideological crux of the matter. The toughest questions that will be posed will be to do with whether the DA plan offers a new vision for the redistribution of wealth and power. If it fails to acknowledge that rent-seeking tendencies are no less prevalent or vested in the private sector than in the state, and if its only real argument is that the unions obstruct change, the DA is unlikely to persuade people that it can deliver substantive equality and is anything other than the political representative of unbridled free-market capitalism.

This could prove tricky, because the DA is a much broader political church these days. It contains real social democrats as well as conservatives and liberals. Holding it together would not be so easy were the real choices about policy implementation ever to be made in government, as the ANC illustrates on a near-daily basis.

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