ON MONDAY, the Democratic Alliance (DA) unveiled a gigantic poster in downtown Johannesburg as part of its "Know Your DA" campaign. Featuring a smiling black man in a safety hat, the poster says: "We support BEE (black economic empowerment) that creates jobs, not billionaires."
The poster will get flak for the clumsy messaging and unintended insult it contains. The intended message is that the DA is for broad-based BEE, and not the type that rewards a small, political elite. This is an uncontroversial notion. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) introduced the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act in 2003 as a response to the weaknesses and failures of the BEE law that came before.
But the DA’s billboard will be read within a certain context, and it struck me that you can’t blame people who take the message to mean that the opposition party would prefer to see blacks as labour, not as owners of the means of production. The implication is there. The wording should have been different.
My concern is with the aims of the Know Your DA campaign. After the unveiling, DA national spokesman Mmusi Maimane wrote on Twitter that the idea was to show people that the party had opposed apartheid in the past and would therefore gain the trust of voters for the future.
As evidence of this past, the first phase of the campaign released a short documentary that highlighted the contributions made by Helen Suzman from her Progressive Federal Party (PFP) seat in parliament. DA leader Helen Zille’s journalistic work in the aftermath of Steve Biko’s death is another highlight. It notably omits to mention that the PFP only dropped its support for a qualified franchise based on education and income requirements in 1978, as well as the staunch conservative base in the party, formed in part from remnants of the National Party.
The current phase of the campaign, Maimane said, is to convince people that the DA won’t bring apartheid back if it should win power. It will instead take ANC policies such as those on BEE and land reform and repurpose them.
In April, a survey by research company Pondering Panda showed that "the majority" of young black South Africans believed the DA would bring back apartheid if it won a national election. One wants to take such surveys with a pinch of salt — especially one that relied on polling via cellphones — but the DA said this was a sign that ANC propaganda was working.
"The DA supports social grants," Maimane said. "We support social grants because they are vital to protect the poor from the impact of extreme poverty. The DA supports land reform. We support land reform because we must correct the evils of the apartheid system that reserved the best land for whites only. The DA supports BEE. We support broad-based BEE because we want to build an inclusive economy in which everybody has a fair chance of getting ahead in life."
The party also released its own BEE scorecard, which includes equity equivalents "to encourage a range of contributions to economic growth, such as enterprise creation, and skills and infrastructure development".
The DA has previously supported the ANC’s National Development Plan and begun to implement it where it governs, such as the Western Cape.
In my experience, there is a strong disjoint between DA policy, and public perception. Much of what I thought to be fact about the party’s stance turned out to be false when I delved into its policies. There are remarkable similarities to ANC policy in general.
The Know Your DA campaign should have started on this leg. I would have encouraged the party to forget about trying to rewrite our history. The ANC will always own that one. It should have employed far better copywriters, though.
The DA knows all too well its perception problems are not down to ANC propaganda alone. It has struggled to know what to do with its conservative base, which will have been at odds with its attempts to garner more of the black vote by picking up ANC policy. It hasn’t helped that as recently as June, a DA councillor was expelled for circulating a racist email about President Jacob Zuma. It can’t pretend we haven’t noticed.