EDITORIAL: DA's economic plan well timed
EIGHTEEN years into democracy the nature of South African politics is starting to change. By the next general election in 2014 a significant proportion of the electorate will be too young to remember apartheid first-hand, and by 2024 they will be the majority. The issues that affect people's day-to-day lives, and the policies political parties propose to address the fundamental problems that still plague South African society - poverty, unemployment, inequality and a chronic lack of skills - are set to replace race and group identity as the main factors that decide elections.
This is clearly to be welcomed as part of the normalisation of a society recovering from centuries of casual and institutionalised racism. As the World Bank noted in a country report released last week, while race remains an important factor in determining access to basic opportunities such as healthcare, education, water, sanitation, electricity and early childhood development programmes, it is no longer the biggest single factor. In fact, it is no longer even second as a factor - where people are born and how much education their parents have received are now more accurate predictors of disadvantage.
There is, certainly, considerable overlap between these factors and race; a child who is born in a township to parents who have no more than primary school education is still almost certainly going to be black. But it is no longer possible to state with confidence that a child living in a middle-class suburb with access to all modern conveniences and whose parents have some tertiary education will be white.
This evolution is undoubtedly good news for the Democratic Alliance (DA) as the biggest opposition party, even though it has made significant progress in changing its early image as a white-dominated home for minorities. The party is still most attractive to minority groups of all races, but is now relatively diverse and more representative of the South African population in terms of its senior leadership, membership and the rising proportion of people who vote for it.
The DA is also fortunate that this change in societal attitudes happens to coincide with another shift in the political landscape: the African National Congress's (ANC's) stumble to the left. During the first decade of ANC government there was little of substance to differentiate the DA from the incumbent when it came to economic or social policy. The ANC was a broad church, certainly, including a range of ideologies from communist to libertarian, but the dominant faction - led by deputy president and then president Thabo Mbeki - took a relatively liberal, market-friendly policy stance in keeping with the constitution it had helped to negotiate, one of the most liberal there is.
This has changed since Mr Mbeki was ousted at the ANC's 2007 electoral conference at Polokwane, accelerating under the presidency of Jacob Zuma. ANC policy - where it can be said to have a clearly identifiable policy - is hard to pin down but is clearly not liberal, or market friendly. Or, for that matter, particularly friendly to the vast army of unemployed and other marginalised South Africans.
The governing party is hopelessly divided ideologically, with the left-leaning alliance partners - the South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions - having gained the upper hand. This is reflected in the difference in approach to economic matters between the proponents of the developmental state who controlled the ANC's recent policy conference, and the recommendations of the National Planning Commission under former finance minister Trevor Manuel. It is also evident from an increasingly interventionist and prescriptive state, a growing disregard for the rule of law, media freedom and judicial authority, and a disdain for individual freedoms.
In this context, and with the ANC under increasing pressure to produce and implement effective policies to address faltering economic growth and rising joblessness in particular, the DA's release of a comprehensive plan to boost annual economic growth to 8% is well timed. Perhaps most importantly, with an eye on the 2014 election, it is a good opportunity for the party to differentiate its policies from those that appear likely to be adopted by the ANC at Mangaung in December.
The key differentiator that emerges from the DA document is one of emphasis - the majority of new initiatives the party proposes focus on opening the economy to more South Africans and "growing the pie" rather than redistributing existing wealth. A clear message is also sent out that the trade unions would have a far tougher time under a DA government, as would any other perceived impediments to job creation, especially bureaucratic red tape. The government's role would be primarily to facilitate and regulate business, and not to compete through state-owned enterprises.
It is possible to debate the feasibility of some of the specific proposals in the document, but there is no doubt that the overall package provides South Africans with a meaningful and practical alternative approach to that of the ANC for the first time since 1994.
Whether it is embraced by them will depend to a large extent on how the country fares during the coming two years before the 2014 election.
If the education system keeps misfiring, economic opportunities continue to be hogged by the politically connected elite and unemployment remains sky high, the DA alternative will undoubtedly attract serious attention.
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