Simon Williamson

Tony Leon was right

2014-04-04 07:13

Cast your minds back to 2013, when the Democratic Alliance decided to vote for the Employment Equity Bill, betting its core supporters wouldn't be driven away by a push for expansion of its electorate, and then backtracked faster than dog discovering an electric fence.

That pushmi-pullyu jig was slammed by former party leader Tony Leon who wrote in Business Day: "The DA's flip-flop on employment equity suggests that whatever its other lapses, the ANC now comprehensively dominates the intellectual space and defines terms of the debate within it."

Since then, the accidental ambassador has proven to be quite correct.

The pro-business, anti-regulation political wing in South Africa is virtually dead. At least unconscious, for the moment. The Libertarians didn't even make the ballot. Cope, allegedly right of centre, is a disaster. And the DA has looked left, and started walking in that direction.

Although the Democratic Alliance's version of liberalism is broad, there are constant veins of rightward leaning ideology that are not unreasonable for a political party to take. For example, the DA believes in privatisation. In this case of South African Airways. And here, the SABC.

Abandonment of free market policies

In 2013 the DA's shadow minister of public enterprises Natasha Michael said: "The DA is of the firm belief that in order to achieve economic growth and create jobs some SOEs must be privatised and allowed the autonomy to operate and compete without government interference."

Shadow minister of finance Tim Harris has previously called for privatisation(at least in part) for Armscor, Eskom and Transnet. In his then capacity as spokesperson of labour Ian Ollis called for the privatisation of the Compensation Fund, and some smaller airports

This whole privatisation thing is (well, was) fairly consistent about the DA. But the party is swallowing that up this election with its abandonment of its free market policies as, according to Gauteng Premier candidate Mmusi Maimane, it wishes to see government become a landlord.

Correct: the DA, which criticises the ANC for governmental interference in the economy, plans to get jiggy with the commercial property market and give small businesses property to rent for R1 per year in unused Gauteng government buildings.

This abandonment of an entire political philosophy(really, state-owned enterprises are one of the premier differentiating issues between the ANC and the DA) is problematic for a party that likes to consider itself champions of the free market.

Why is (such heavily) subsidised commercial rent a problem? Well, start off with the fact that a DA government, according to its own political philosophies, should be selling off unused public property.

 About-turn of serious consequence

On top of that, a DA government will have to decide who gets the R1-rent and who doesn't; in other words, the government will be picking winners and losers - exactly the kind of thing free marketeers should abhor. And the potential earnings of those unused buildings - revenue from renting them out at market rates, or cash coming in from their sale - is being kept out of the public purse. In fact, it will cost the government (therefore the taxpayers of Gauteng) money to maintain them if they are only pulling in R1 per business per year.

And what about the folks who have invested in renting out properties to businesses, who are now competing with the government which can afford to lease out at such an absurd below-market rate? There goes their free market.

Does, as Tony Leon says, the ANC "comprehensively dominate the intellectual space and define terms of the debate within it"?

For the DA's most high-profile post-Ramphele candidate, Mmusi Maimane, to push for a policy entirely at odds with one of the key aspects of its political philosophy - privatisation - one must certainly consider that point.

This is an about-turn of serious consequence. Pretty much like when the party decided President Mbeki was actually great.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  tony leon  |  tim harris  |  mmusi maimane  |  elections 2014

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