A missed opportunity for the DA

Leader of South African opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) Mmusi Maimane speaks during the party's election manifesto launch in Johannesburg

The Democratic Alliance’s (DA) manifesto launch was undermined by Mmusi Maimane’s inability to articulate the policy promises contained in the manifesto. If one relied on Maimane’s speech alone they would think the DA has no manifesto. About 45 minutes into the speech, Maimane had not discussed the party’s policy promises. He spent a lot of time reviewing what the DA stands for and has stood for where it governs, doing this in tandem with discussing the ANC’s governance failures.

The party leader appears to have done a gross disservice to his fellow comrades and party followers. For the longest time, the South African public has implored the DA to focus more on what its policy propositions are for our country instead of spending inordinate amounts of time bashing the ANC. The ANC is a soft target because of its spectacular failure to govern the state in an inspiring and morally upright manner.

Maimane does acknowledge that South Africa is an extremely unequal society of the haves and have nots. He sells the DA as a party that tackles corruption and creates jobs where it governs. He however failed to give demonstrable evidence that where the DA governs inequality is consciously tackled with evidence to back this up. Inequality in South Africa is a big driver of disunity and lacking social cohesion, a solution to it is definitely needed. This requires a set of policy proposals that will even out income and asset ownership inequalities. Consequently, this means adopting redistributive policies that will upset those who have more – at an unacceptably disproportionate level. The DA would not employ such a policy as it would upset big business, old money and the markets. But Maimane won’t tell the voters this.

There is an important promise that the DA is making – a job in every home. Research has been showing that unemployment is the biggest driver of poverty in our country. To achieve better employment, the DA promises to introduce a Jobs Act “to serve as an economic stimulus shock”. Maimane did not adequately expand on this idea in his speech, perhaps out of embarrassment. The manifesto proposes that the Act would include:

“A labour market flexibility exemption clause aimed at making the process to hire and fire employees simpler and allowing potential employees to opt-out of the relevant sectoral minimum wage (which would have a new minimum of no less that the old age grant) while still ensuring occupational safety and the human rights of all employees are upheld. Labour costs are one of the biggest inputs that businesses consider when investing, and this clause has the potential to unlock hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

The DA has always viewed labour as a stumbling block to economic productivity and investment in our country. Yet, the development of our labour laws (backed by significant research) entrenches the rights of workers. These include the need for workers to earn living wages, something that the current minimum wage does not even come close to achieving. The DA is simply proposing a need for more employment but on slave wages. The minimum wage is a form of social protection, ensuring that people are earning respectable salaries in order to remove dependency on the state for a number of households. If undoing this is the “economic stimulus shock” the DA proposes, then the party stands a great chance of alienating some job seekers who wish to secure employment in future with decent wages.

The DA manifesto launch happened against the backdrop of unfolding crisis at Eskom – the country’s power utility that is a significant risk to our economic wellbeing. One would have expected Maimane to spend time discussing proposals on how to turnaround the fortunes of the power utility. Alas. The actual manifesto at least shares some ideas on what the DA thinks of Eskom. Read to its logical conclusion – the DA would have Eskom manage its debt and exist with gradually dissipating monopoly in the energy generation space. 

To achieve this, the party would unbundle Eskom into two – not three – independent entities; namely, generation and transmission. The transmission entity will procure from Eskom and independent power producers (IPPs) in order to sell electricity to a market of distributors and customers at a wholesale price. The licensing fees for IPPs would be used to service the Eskom debt. Whether those fees would be adequate or not is something unknown as there are no figures to the policy promises.

Eskom’s runaway debt driving projects – Kusile and Medupi are not touched upon with convincing proposals being tabled on how to curtail their destruction on the country’s fiscus. The DA also rejects two hotly contested policy propositions in our political landscape – land expropriation without compensation and the national health insurance. The ANC will definitely move to push legislation on the two over the next five years. One expects the DA to ferociously oppose the development of such policies. On the NHI the DA believes greater focus is needed to develop the public healthcare system’s capacity to respond to society’s need. This point is important because introducing an NHI policy with the currently dilapidated public health system (as per the admission of the President in his SONA) will compound the crisis and drive the cost of healthcare to unmanageable fees for government.

Lukhona Mnguni a PhD candidate and researcher at the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit, UKZN.