John Steenhuisen | Non-racialism is the only way to achieve meaningful redress in South Africa

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Newly elected DA leader John Steenhuisen at the launch of his campaign in February.
Newly elected DA leader John Steenhuisen at the launch of his campaign in February.
Jan Gerber

John Steenhuisen writes that the the DA has premised its rejection of race on five principles. 


This weekend, the Democratic Alliance convened a national congress, as it does every three years, to elect new leadership and decide the overall direction of the party. I feel honoured to have been elected federal leader and proud that the party has recommitted itself to building a prosperous South Africa, and anchored itself firmly to the principle of non-racialism.

The DA’s rejection of race as an organising principle for society springs from our growing conviction that race-based policies are not only unnecessary to achieve meaningful redress for past injustices, but are indeed undermining this objective.

The measure of success of any redress programme in South Africa has got to be the degree to which it reduces poverty and racial inequality. Despite two decades of race-based redress policies, both are growing in South Africa, a situation which has been accelerated by lockdown, but which long predates it.

We need to rethink our approach to redress. The DA sets out a radically different approach in our Economic Justice policy, premised on the following five principles:

Disadvantaged South Africans

1. Disadvantaged South Africans, including the over 30 million South Africans living below the poverty line, who still suffer the consequences of deprivation and who suffer it most greatly, must be prioritised for redress.

Redress is about ensuring that economic exclusion, which was a hallmark of our past, does not continue to be a feature of the present or our future. No redress programme can be considered successful unless it dismantles the barriers that continue to exclude people from the economy. No other redress objective is more important, nor more urgent, than the imperative to raise living standards.

Beneficiaries are best identified through means-testing because what we are trying to fix is gross disadvantage. Disadvantage is the variable which changes in response to interventions, "race" is presumably set in stone and does not change regardless of the interventions. This prevents easily targeting those most in need and excluding those who should no longer benefit from redress policy. Means-testing uses indicators such as income, geographic location, net assets and access to basic services.

The people in this priority group have priority status, not because they are black, but because they are poor. While it is true that pretty much everyone in this group is black (99.8%), it is not true that everyone who is black is in this group. Around 0.2% of this impoverished group are white. But it would surely be better to include a tiny number of people who are excluded from the economy (just for other reasons) than a much larger number of people who are not excluded. Bear in mind, resources are extremely limited and must be used to maximum effect in advancing our objective.

Redress programme 

2. Apartheid excluded black people by depriving them of skilled jobs, ownership of land in well-located areas, equivalent quality education, health, housing, wealth creation, spatial and other opportunities. A redress programme must prioritise the dismantling of this system of deprivation by addressing these drivers of inequality of opportunity.

Vast socio-economic disparities will continue to exist until inequalities of opportunity are addressed. The DA’s Economic Justice policy considers the key inequalities that still plague our society, and sets out ways that both private enterprises and government can contribute to tackling these.

Government procurement

3. Competence to deliver must take priority, whether in government procurement or appointments, since bad or unfulfilled delivery hurts the poor most as they are most reliant on government services.

Economic inclusion will not be achieved without a capable state committed to meritocracy and clean governance. Where companies can provide goods or services at the same level of functionality and price, preference can then be given to the company which makes the most positive socioeconomic impact.

Redistribution

4. Redistribution policies must support growth or be growth neutral. Measures to promote inclusion cannot come at the expense of a healthy economy.

Without a growing economy, no redress programme will achieve the objectives of reducing poverty and inequality. A stagnant or contracting economy will only entrench unemployment and inequality, as we have seen recently. Redistribution in a growing economy on the other hand will tend to generate a virtuous cycle where redistribution generates more growth which enables the provision of better support for fewer dependents

The only way to grow our economy is through increased investment in productive enterprises, much of which will need to be foreign investment because the government’s massive annual deficit is absorbing most, if not all, of SA’s annual savings. Foreign investors have plenty of investment destinations open to them and will not invest in a country presenting unattractive obstacles that raise the cost of doing business, such as the current BEE system.

The DA proposes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals framework, since it is a useful, internationally recognised and supported framework for addressing systemic drivers of exclusion in a sustainable manner. Far from being a deterrent to investment, shareholders and analysts increasingly look for companies with strong SDG awareness and commitments.

Non-racialism

5. Redress can only be achieved by focusing on the inputs which drive inclusion/exclusion; it cannot be achieved by the false engineering of outcomes while ignoring the causes.

This is a key problem with BEE, which targets elites at the expense of the poor by making state spending inefficient. The terrible truth is that BEE’s enrichment and re-enrichment of a small connected elite (both black and white) is largely financed by the poor majority (both black and white), since it diverts resources intended for service delivery, through price inflation, fraud and under-delivery. While this is not the case with all state contracts, it has been estimated that roughly half are dodgy (two-thirds for PPE contracts). BEE also harms the poor by deterring investment and job creation.  Unsurprisingly, research suggests BEE has failed to provide economic empowerment opportunities to 85% of black South Africans.

To support non-racialism is not to deny or minimise the racial nature of South Africa’s inequality. It is to recognise that race will continue to matter until we tackle the problem that race gave rise to, inequality of opportunity, and that the continued racialisation of society is undermining that objective.

- John Steenhuisen is the leader of the DA.

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