John Steenhuisen | We are fighting, and winning, the battle of ideas

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DA’s John Steenhuisen outlines where he feels the party was right in speaking out. Photo by                                                        Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais
DA’s John Steenhuisen outlines where he feels the party was right in speaking out. Photo by Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais

John Steenhuisen writes that the DA has often warned against a decision and been labelled alarmist or even racist, but proved correct years later. He reflects on some recent instances. 


Often an idea seems good at the time, or at least harmless, and it is only years later, once the consequences have played out, that those who warned against it are vindicated. By then, it seems evident that the idea was terrible all along, and almost no one admits to ever having supported it, or acknowledges that those who warned against it were derided for doing so.

The DA has often warned against a decision and been labelled alarmist or even racist, but proved correct years later. Hardly ever have commentators acknowledged that we were right and that great harm, suffered most keenly by the poor majority, could have been avoided had our warnings been heeded.

Our 2009 "Stop Zuma" campaign met howls of indignation at the time, but silence years later when Zuma went on to break our institutions and sell the country to the highest bidder. The immense loss and damage were avoidable.

I highlight more of these instances here, not to say: "we told you so", but to build public trust in the DA's ideas. We want people to know that we care enough to do the hard work of considering not just the immediate but also the longer-term consequences of decisions and how they will impact not just specific groups but everyone. We care enough to propose good ideas and call out bad ones, even if it makes us unpopular at the time.

Cadre Deployment

For 25 years since its adoption in 1997, the DA has warned time and time again that the ANC's policy of deploying loyal cadres into every institution of state in order to control all "levers of power" would fundamentally derail the project of building a prosperous South Africa.

We warned that public appointments based on political loyalty rather than merit would inevitably erode the ability of the state to deliver on its mandate. And we warned that it would destroy the ability of our democratic institutions to check and balance power, leading to corruption, cronyism, impunity and capture.

READ | Ebrahim Harvey: ANC govt promises to abolish cadre deployment, but it's going to have implications

Our decades-long fight against cadre deployment achieved an extraordinary success last month, with the cabinet officially endorsing the DA's position that cadre deployment prevents the building of a capable public service and must therefore be "ditched". That, along with the Zondo report's finding that the policy is "illegal and unconstitutional", constitutes massive vindication of the DA's long-held position.

Of course, this policy about turn still needs to be implemented in practice. The DA's legal case to have cadre deployment ruled illegal remains vital. Forcing cadre deployment out of the public service employment framework will be a massive win for the DA on behalf of South Africans.

Public Protector

In 2016, the DA was the only party to vote in Parliament against the appointment of Busisiwe Mkhwebane as Public Protector. We did so on the bases that she lacked the appropriate experience for such a high profile and socially important position, that she was not a suitable candidate as she had been a government spy employed by the State Security Agency, and that hers was a politically motivated deployment. Our position has since been vindicated.

Far from protecting people against the abuse of executive power, she has rather sought to protect those power abusers. Her impeachment hearings last week, themselves a result of a DA motion in the National Assembly, revealed that she spent around R147 million in legal fees to defend poor-quality reports emanating from her office. Six damaging years later, there is general agreement her appointment was a bad idea.

Cost of Living

In response to the cost-of-living crisis that has left 80% of families unable to afford three meals a day, the DA, in consultation with economists, drew up a set of relief proposals. In the lead-up to October’s mid-term budget statement, we fought hard to expand the list of food items that are zero-rated for VAT, and other interventions to bring down the cost of living for South Africa's poorest households.

In his mid-term budget speech, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana failed to even mention South Africa's cost of living crisis, let alone address it. The DA will keep up the pressure for these interventions ahead of his February budget because we know that the socioeconomic cost of ignoring this crisis is far higher than the cost of addressing it.

Ministerial Handbook

Fortunately, not all our battles take years to bear fruit. Last month, the DA spotted and exposed changes to the Ministerial Handbook, signed off in April by President Ramaphosa, which gave his cabinet unlimited taxpayer-funded water and electricity at their homes, on top of taxpayer-funded generators, so shielding them from the effects of their own bad ideas that have wreaked such havoc in the lives of ordinary South Africans. The public outrage this sparked led to a hasty retraction, another DA victory on behalf of South Africans.

READ | Jan Gerber: The Ministerial Handbook: Keeping ministers away from the common people

BEE

All and sundry have slammed the DA for opposing race-based procurement policies, which go under the misleading name of Black Economic Empowerment. But public opinion is starting to swing, and soon it will be accepted by everyone that it was a bad idea all along.

There is now a growing realisation that BEE is an idea that sounds good in name and theory but has terrible real-life consequences because it leads to inefficient state spending and corruption.

High electricity prices and load-shedding for all (except cabinet ministers of course) while BEE tenderpreneurs rake in millions in coal and other Eskom contracts have brought the message home that BEE is unfair. By adding an extra layer of cost and complexity to government tenders, it harms the excluded black majority most, since they are most reliant on efficient, affordable government services.

The DA has proposed a need- and disadvantage-based model instead, set out in our Economic Justice Policy, that promotes value-for-money government procurement while still incentivising private sector organisations to contribute where they can make the biggest positive social impact.

Our policy targets the vulnerable and disadvantaged, a much larger group of predominantly black South Africans, while BEE targets a small group. Ours is based on a globally recognised model which attracts investment, while BEE deters investment. Ours is a good idea that will work in practice, while BEE is a good-sounding bad idea that doesn't work in practice.

Child Support Grant

The DA has long held that the Child Support Grant should be pegged to the food poverty line to meet their basic nutritional needs and ensure a diversity of dietary intake. This year, the Social Development Department finally acknowledged that this should indeed be the case, on the back of the recent surge in child malnutrition cases, with 1 009 children dying of malnutrition in public hospitals in the year to March 2022.

Despite popular misconceptions, research has shown that the child grant is generally well used and improves child nutrition, health and education outcomes. It is a good idea that all of society should get behind.

Electoral Thresholds

Last month, the DA proposed five legislative changes that would help to stabilise coalitions, most crucially an electoral threshold requiring a political party to secure at least 1% of the overall vote to qualify for seats in a legislature or council. 

Tiny parties with minimal electoral support should not be able to determine whether the ANC or DA runs a government. That is a subversion of democracy. Yet this has happened in many local governments recently, most notably in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. 

With the era of one-party domination ending, South Africa's electoral legislation needs to cater for coalition politics. Other countries with Proportional Representation electoral systems have set electoral thresholds to avoid this instability. In Germany, parties require a minimum of 5% of the electorate's support to get into national government while in Denmark it is 2%, Austria 4%, Belgium 5%, and Greece 3%.

READ | Helen Zille: Coalitions in SA are not working. What needs to change?

Without legislative changes, the same kind of coalition instability we’re seeing in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni will happen at national level too, after 2024, disrupting service delivery and possibly even rendering South Africa ungovernable. This DA will be introducing this good idea in a Private Member’s Bill.

We will opppose bad ideas 

In the fullness of time, the DA will be proved right on many other ideas too, such as the need for a flexible labour market, decentralised policing, and secure property rights. We will continue to oppose bad ideas such as NHI, the BELA Bill, the Expropriation Bill, and the Employment Equity Bill.

The measure of a good idea is if it works and works for all rather than a connected few. Good ideas can set a country up for generations of success, while bad ideas can cause decades of human suffering. In pursuit of a prosperous, successful South Africa, the DA will keep fighting and winning, the battle of ideas.

- John Steenhuisen is leader of the DA


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