To BEE or not to BEE? The DA's dilemma

The Democratic Alliance's Wilmot James. (Gallo)

The Democratic Alliance's Wilmot James. (Gallo)

The Democratic Alliance's Wilmot James has botched the party's new message around black economic empowerment in a radio interview, but the party is sticking to its guns and saying that race matters to the opposition.

The DA launched phase two of its "Know your DA" campaign on Monday, where the party trumpeted its commitment to policies, land reform and social grants. The DA launched a document detailing how it would expand on current BEE legislation to make it more broad-based and prevent an already enriched elite from benefitting.

"To correct this, we support the use of a B-BEE scorecard to stimulate investment by the business community in a broad range of empowerment measures – including skills development, enterprise development and social investment," said the party's spokesperson Mmusi Maimane at the launch on Monday.

The launch was met with mixed reviews, but it went downhill when James, a senior DA member and MP, battled to reconcile the new policy with the party's commitment to non-racialism on PowerFM with host Eusebius Mckaiser on Tuesday.

He admitted after a long to-and-fro that the party would replace BEE with "diversity economic empowerment" if it were in power.

Policy rewrite
He said yes when McKaiser asked if the party would rewrite the policy if it was in power to remove the B in BEE, and replace it with a D for diversity, with no reference to the word black.

"So the DA is not into black economic empowerment, it is into diversity economic empowerment, is that a correct summary, Dr James?" asked McKaiser.

"That sounds a bit clumsy but that does summarise our position, yes," said James.

"An advocate of BEE doesn’t ditch the language of race," said Mckaiser after the interview.

"You cannot have a billboard saying you are into BEE but the morning after say, 'I will enact a law that replaces the language of race'. You are lying to the electorate."

Maimane was quick to refute the disastrous interview on Tuesday, telling the Mail & Guardian that the party did not shy away from race.

"If we had to come into power tomorrow morning, the policy would stand," he said, referring the M&G to the green paper the party launched on Monday.

"The legislation in and of itself is an acknowledgement of race.
That component is not going to change," he said.

But Wilmot said: "We don’t support the use of racial targets and racial quotas when it comes to how the BEE system is designed," when Mckaiser pushed him on the DA squaring the race-based BEE policy with their previous reluctance to commit to race-based policies.

"We believe that we should leave it up to companies to define their own targets, and those targets are diversity targets that are on ownership, management and employees.

'Stop bean counting'
"The important thing to recognise is that we're dealing with past disadvantage [which] corresponded five to 10 years ago perfectly with race. But now it doesn't so you have to modernise and you have to stop the racial bean counting … there is a broad overlap in racial terms but lets not use the racial vocabulary."

Maimane's take on the seeming contradiction in the party's commitment to non-racialism as well as BEE was that the ideal conditions for nonracialism did not exist yet.

"That world does not currently exist," he said.

"We want the world in future to be non-racist." But he said the historical imbalances that were predominantly race-based had to be addressed first, using broad-based BEE policies.

The opposition party is on an aggressive campaign to transform its image with the South African public as pro-transformation. The first phase of the "Know your DA" campaign punted the controversial message that the party also fought against apartheid, and phase two looks at policy reform to benefit the black majority of the country.

"Now that we have set the record straight about our past, we are moving into the next phase of 'Know Your DA'. In this phase, we are correcting another falsehood peddled by our political opponents: the lie that we want to bring apartheid back," said Maimane at the launch.

"Our opponents say that we will do this by taking away people's social grants, by stopping the redistribution of land and by abolishing black economic empowerment."

Economic policy
The party said on Twitter on Tuesday that it practiced what it preached in the areas it governed. About 80% of the Western Cape's tenders was awarded to black-owned enterprises in the third quarter of 2010/2011, soon after the party came into power in that province. This included the 53% that was awarded to enterprises owned by black women.

Asked if the DA was late to the party on the issue, Maimane said it formed part of the DA's economic policy released last year and that the DA MPS have been part of relevant parliamentary processes on the policy.

BEE consultant Paul Janisch said the DA policy was a populist take on existing legislation, with a few improvements to make it more appealing to the broader public.

"The DA is proposing a variety of conditions for recognition of points under ownership," said Janisch.

"The reason why they did this is because they know that the majority of the population view BEE as deals and get-rich-quick schemes. Therefore the DA had to put something in there showing that they have the broader workers’ concerns at heart."

But he largely commended the document.

"What they have got right and significantly right is the sorting out of the basics. If you address social, skills and educational issues before people get to the workplace then they are in a much better position to benefit from internal empowerment policies like employment equity and skills development."


Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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