The Democratic Alliance is changing. And its new direction is seeing it adopt pro-poor policies as it attempts to shed its image of a right-leaning, elitist party.
This repositioning is part of the party’s Road to 2019 strategy to increase its support in the 2019 general elections, specifically among black voters, and assume national office.
Party leader Mmusi Maimane spoke to the Mail & Guardian this week, appearing energised by the new direction. “I’m working hard to change the DA. We are a party that’s changing and is committed to bringing new beginnings for all South Africans. Too many times we talk about the rich,” Maimane said.
“You know, when the Kenyans say: ‘It’s our turn to eat’, they mean corrupt politicians. Maybe it’s my own background where I come from, but honestly, it must be the poor’s turn to eat.”
Last week the DA’s federal council, its highest decision-making body, met in Tshwane to discuss new policy directions that focus on the economy and the needs of poor South Africans.
Some of the considerations in the policy discussion documents include doubling the child support grant to cover the nutritional needs of children and the introduction of a “job-seeker’s allowance” for unemployed young people.
This month the DA will launch a bus ride system that will provide free transport into cities for young township job-seekers. The programme, piloted in Tshwane this month, is expected to be implemented in most DA-led municipalities.
Despite its attempt to fully enforce its pro-poor approach, the DA has had to deal with the mixed signals some of its leaders have given.
In May the Western Cape government, under Premier Helen Zille, came under scrutiny when it authorised the private sale of the Tafelberg site in Sea Point that had been earmarked for low-cost housing. Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has been accused of being anti-poor because of his rhetoric on hijacked inner-city buildings and the need to remove undocumented foreigners.
In June, Cape Town ward councillor Shayne Ramsay was fined R10 000 by the party for a 2016 Facebook entry in which she called homeless people in Sea Point criminals and urged residents not to give them money to force them to move elsewhere.
Maimane acknowledged that the party must send out a uniform message about its pro-poor approach but was unclear about how it could guard against mixed messages. He cautioned that the party still had to take care of financial obligations, which he said were partly the reason behind the sale of the Tafelberg site. Still, he did not seem impressed with how the matter had unfolded.
“When I say we are pro-poor …we’ve still got to get this tax base so we can move money from one site to the next. But we are working with [the Western Cape] government. What I want for Cape Town is that poor people must not live far [from where job opportunities are]. In the land near the council, they must build high-density structures and allow some apartments there to be for poor people,” he said.
The DA has been widely criticised for its views on affirmative action. In 2005 the party’s federal council adopted a position to reject “any system or policy that allows the state to grant rights and privileges to one group on the basis of ethnic or racial nationalism”. In 2014, under Zille’s leadership, the party trod carefully, saying it supported affirmative action but rejected race-based quota systems. It preferred “diversity targets”.
It is only recently that the party has started to use bolder language about affirmative action, with some party leaders openly questioning issues of transformation — even in the DA’s own ranks.
Now Maimane says that the party is pro-affirmative action. “Affirmative action is something the DA supports. We’ve maintained that affirmative action works this way: if there are two candidates of different races and they appear for the job, pick the black one. We will support it; we wouldn’t abandon the policy.”
But he rejected what he said was the ANC’s current form of “elite empowerment” that only provided economic opportunities to a few politically connected individuals.
On land reform, Maimane said the DA would not support calls for expropriation without compensation. Workers should be given a portion of the land they worked — with compensation — and not be expected to lease land from the state, he said.
Maimane said he has taken the government to court to fight for the rights of black Northern Cape farmers who have been leasing the land they farm on since the early 1990s, despite promises from government that full ownership would be transferred to them.