Allister Sparks

Golden DA policy nuggets the media missed

2015-05-20 09:16

Allister Sparks

Mmusi Maimane's election as the new leader of the Democratic Alliance was rightly a major media event, but what surprises me is that even as they hailed it as the dawn a new era for the DA, the media failed to note some major policy decisions at that party congress that will help him make it so.

It is doubly surprising because many commentators have been saying since his election that charismatic and talented though Maimane is, he will need to make adjustments to the DA's policy image if he is get anywhere. That the DA will have to pay closer attention to the needs of the poor, the young and the unemployed.

Which is precisely what at least a dozen of those policy resolutions did, but went unreported.

Policy resolutions

Three of them, all unanimously endorsed, touched issues of particular interest to me, since they have been subjects of this column over many years:

- The DA advocates the release of communal land (meaning state land held in trust by tribal chiefs in the former Bantustans) to those individuals who live and work on it and that they be given legal title to certify their ownership of it.

- The DA also advocates broad-based private ownership of the property black people occupy elsewhere (meaning urban townships, RDP houses, even informal settlements). This will lead to "the unlocking of credit which will allow for participation of the previously disadvantaged people in South Africa's economy."

- A change in our country's electoral system to allow for three quarters of the country's 400 MPs to be directly elected from constituencies, and the other quarter by proportional representation, instead of all being elected from party lists as happens now.

I believe those three issues alone, if implemented by a DA administration, would change the  political and socio-economic face of this country.

There were other significant resolutions as well, dealing with such things as improved education, agricultural sector reform, and regionally differentiated minimum pay scales to attract businesses to set up in rural areas and so provide jobs for the millions of unemployed people  living there. No-one is going to set up a factory at, say, Cofimvaba in the old Transkei if it means paying a Johannesburg wage to workers there. Allow them to pay a more appropriate local wage there, and they will come.

Owning the land

All those are policies that could get the task of closing our country's wealth gap under way. They deserved to be publicised - more so, I would argue, than febrile outbursts on the twittersphere.

But it is the three I have highlighted that stand out for me.

Calls for a new electoral system that would make MPs more directly answerable to the constituency voters who send them to Parliament than to the list system that makes them pay more attention the party bosses who draw up those lists, have been filling the letters columns of newspapers for years. Yet when the official opposition party adopts that as its formal policy, it doesn't warrant a mention in those papers.

More important still is the DA's adoption of the right of black people to own the land on which they live and work. It is a policy position I have been urging for years, since I first encountered the works of the Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, who contends that private property ownership is the most effective way to narrow the wealth gap in developing countries.

De Soto points out that even the poor own a lot of "stuff," notably dwellings, however humble, that have an intrinsic value. But because they don't have legal documentation testifying to their ownership, the goods have no real value. They can't be traded for what they are worth, and they can't be leveraged for credit. They are what he calls "dead capital".

Security of tenure

To bring that capital to life requires legal proof of ownership. In the case of  homes, title deeds.

So give people the homes they are living in and give them the title deeds that are proof of that ownership, and you give them an asset they can use to better their lives.

With that proof of ownership they can go to a bank, or other financial institution, and use it as collateral to raise a loan which they can use to buy a tractor to till their fields, or send a daughter to college, or start a small business. They can leverage themselves into the national economy.

More important still, they will have security of tenure. Millions of  black people do not have security of tenure. Few have title deeds to show that they own the homes they occupy in the black townships, which used to belong to the Department of Bantu Administration and Development under the old apartheid regime, and now belong to municipalities under the ANC regime.

Most vulnerable of all are those living in the communal territories, for they are on state land held in trust by the tribal chiefs. Not only are they unable to buy or sell the homes in which they are living - and there are 18-million in the former Bantustans - but their chiefs have the power to kick them out if they don't show them due fealty, or otherwise displease them in any way.

For those 18 million, their homes are legally worthless. They have no real market value, therefore there is little point in improving them.

Yet many do. When I drive through the old Transkei I no longer see the old mud-daub thatched huts that I saw as a child. Today there are hundreds, thousands, of solid, well-built concrete homes, some multi-storied. Those occupants developed their homes with their own hard-earned cash - often earned as migrant labourers, which is about as hard as any earnings can be.

Yet their investments in those homes are legally worth nothing. That's because they don't own them and can't sell them, because they are not theirs to sell. The chief can kick them out any day because they are under his disposable control.

Grotesquely undemocratic

That is surely unfair by any standard of justice. It is also grotesquely undemocratic. Nobody in the new South Africa should have that kind of power over any of our liberated citizens that the chiefs have under tribal law over their putative subjects in the communal lands. But the ANC allows it to continue, because it is politically beneficial to have the chiefs able to deliver those millions of beholden subjects to the polls on election day to vote as they know they had better vote.

The DA says it will change all that if it comes to power. It will give the people their homes and their title deeds and the huge credit value that will come with that - which in the old Bantustans alone must run into trillions of rands - at no cost whatsoever to the fiscus.

Moreover, it can do so incrementally at local government level even without gaining control of the national government, for our new constitution has divided all of SA into a continuum of  municipalities.

With local government elections due in less than a year, that strikes me as being a prospect of some considerable importance.

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