The following remarks were delivered by the DA Leader, John Steenhuisen, at the Press Club today.
As we all grapple to come to terms with a post-Covid, post-lockdown world, it is crucial that we don’t let one crisis mask an even bigger one.
And we dare not let the extraordinary events of 2020 leave us confused as to which of them is the more serious problem, and which came first.
South Africa was in desperate trouble long before this strange year began. While most of the world, and indeed most of our African neighbours, bounced back to various degrees from the global financial crisis of 2008, we have been on a steady path of decline for well over a decade that had nothing to do with outside forces or acts of god.
And if anything, this pandemic has shifted the attention away from the massive, looming crisis in our economy and our society. It has given us all something else to worry about first before we get back to that other thing that had us so worried before we went into lockdown.
And, crucially, it has given those who have made no headway with our faltering economy a scapegoat to blame for all our woes, current and historic.
We are now led to believe by some that, had it not been for the arrival of the coronavirus in March, we wouldn’t be in this mess, and that our turnaround which was just about to happen has now been set back years.
Which is all nonsense, of course. By March of this year, before the first South African had tested positive and the first lockdown restriction had been announced, we were well into an economic recession and there was no sign of a turnaround on the horizon.
We’d been relegated to junk status by the ratings agencies, SARS was missing revenue collection targets by huge amounts and our State-Owned-Dinosaurs continued to gobble up multi-billion rand bailout after multi-billion rand bailout at the expense of just about every real government responsibility.
None of that had anything to do with the virus or the lockdown, although they have now been made infinitely worse by it.
Every part of our decline – our dwindling GDP growth, our ballooning unemployment, our rising national debt, our falling tax revenue, our parasitic state-owned companies and our apparent insistence on repelling all international investment – is entirely self-inflicted.
Despite our rich natural resources, our established infrastructure, our well-developed mining, agriculture and tourism sectors, and a massive untapped and eager workforce, we have been lagging well behind our African peers for over a decade.
And we are doing so because of a stubborn refusal by our government to let go of an economic ideology that fizzled out and died in the rest of the world more than three decades ago.
The Berlin Wall might have fallen and the Soviet Union crumbled – and entire economies were reinvented and built from scratch – but our liberation movement government is still fighting this ideological war like that lone Japanese soldier isolated on a remote Philippines island for three decades after the Second World War had ended.
The belief that the state should be central to the economy and to the lives of citizens, that the state should own the land, industries and monopolies, and that the state knows best where and how economic activity should be directed is the single biggest impediment to our progress.
Yes, there are many other issues too, most notably the scourge of corruption that has paralysed virtually every single facet of government service delivery. But even this is rooted in a unique ANC worldview where many cadres of the liberation movement consider material rewards to be the justified spoils of war.
Smuts Ngonyama was dead serious back in 2004 when he said “I didn’t join the struggle to be poor”. And he was speaking for most of his comrades.
But government corruption is just a symptom of this state-obsessed ideology. And you cannot solve it without first removing the opportunity to loot a massively inflated, ineffective state through patronage and tender fraud.
In short, you need sweeping reforms.
You need to start reforming every single aspect of the state by taking power away from government and putting more and more of it in the hands of the people.
You need to make the switch and acknowledge that the private sector is the solution and not the problem. That smart entrepreneurs and investors know far better than government how to recognise and fill needs in the market, and they are far more efficient at delivering most goods and services.
You need to admit that running power companies, airlines and broadcasters is not the government’s strength, nor its primary duty to citizens. When these operate at a massive loss, the opportunity cost is devastating.
You need to realise that the market and international investors don’t care for our backstory. We’re not exceptional to anyone but ourselves. Their decisions are purely rational, and impediments like BEE, crime, corruption and a volatile, inflexible labour market are deal-breakers to most people.
All of these areas need to be reformed. The moment you do that, you will start to see results.
I’m not suggesting that it will be a simple task to halt our downward trajectory. It’s like trying to turn a massive oil tanker around – it doesn’t happen easily or quickly. But we haven’t even started to turn the wheel.
We have a government that does a lot of talking about the need to start doing so, but no one actually grabs the wheel and turns it. And so we continue to plough ahead in the wrong direction.
We were told at the start of the Ramaphosa administration that we’d dodged a bullet in the NDZ faction, because Ramaphosa had a wonderful reform agenda. If anyone could crack the ANC’s century-old ideological mould, it was this “businessman” who understood the market.
And he certainly said all the right things. He promised us a New Dawn, and alongside him we saw his fellow reformers – people like Tito Mboweni and Pravin Gordhan – who would surely help steer us towards this new dawn.
But almost three years into this administration there can be no more illusions about these so-called reformers. They have all been yanked back into formation. None of the promised reforms have materialised, and instead of a new dawn we’ve been staring at the same old horizon crossing our fingers and hoping for a miracle.
Our recent further downgrade into double junk status has confirmed that the much-vaunted reform agenda of the Ramaphosa presidency failed at the very first hurdle.
Any talk of reform within his own party, any draft plan that puts some of the issues on the table, is immediately shut down and we are left with the same old ANC government with its Cold War-era National Democratic Revolution plan.
So when the president stands on national TV and tells us about his economic recovery plan, the smart thing to do is to wait for his Finance Minister to deliver his budget before breaking out the champagne. Because that’s when you see the gaping hole between what is said and what is done.
That’s when you see the contradictions between the president’s soothing words, and the realities of the ruling party’s worldview as expressed in its budget decisions.
Our problem is that our government deals in the politics of optics. Saying the right thing creates the illusion of action and buys you enough time until the next instalment of the crisis wipes all those promises and commitments from memory.
So we see our president promising us economic recovery plans, talking tough on gender based violence and speaking about fixing our schools and education while that very same week his finance minister is making budget cuts to police, school infrastructure and housing. All to pay for bailouts to our state airline and other SOEs.
All that comforting talk is noting but pseudo-remedy. He’s offering us aromatherapy when we need chemotherapy.
But the good news amid all this gloom is that we don’t have to wait for the ruling Tripartite Alliance to disintegrate before we can set our economy free.
Just as the East Germans and the Soviets eventually put to bed the failed ideology that had kept them trapped in poverty for so long, we too can walk away from the ANC’s doomed project.
We too can choose to throw off the yoke of suffocating state control and step into the 21st Century, albeit a couple of decades late.
And by “we” I mean the people. Voters. Because that’s the only way to do this. The ANC cannot change its spots. It will never commit to the reforms we need. This so-called reformist presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa was the best shot they would ever have, and he didn’t even come close.
So if the ANC won’t let go of the ropes holding us back, it has to be the people of South Africa who let go of the ANC. Believe me, many are ready to do so.
I know the DA had a mixed bag of results during the recent by-elections, and we certainly didn’t have the 2019 election that we were hoping for, but when you look at overall votes shed during both the recent week of by-elections and in 2019, it is the ANC who was, by some distance, the biggest loser.
A shallow reading of the by-election results – which is all one got in the media coverage – shows that the DA had a net loss of seven seats. And while this was rightly described as a setback for the party, is doesn’t tell the full story.
While we lost seats to, among others, Good, Patriotic Alliance, The Freedom Front Plus and Al Jama’ah under extremely difficult local conditions – and, it must be said, due to several faults of our own – our support grew among both black and white voters.
In fact, our total loss of support in all the by-elections where the DA, ANC and EFF fielded candidates was less than one percentage point from our 2019 levels. The ANC lost almost 8 percentage points.
Significantly, one of the wards we won off the ANC was deep in rural Eastern Cape, in Walter Sisulu Municipality, which lies in the north of the province on the Free State border. The ward in question includes Burgersdorp, Mzamomhle and a rural district towards the Gariep dam.
It was in the two voting districts of Mzamomhle that the DA made its biggest inroads, enabling us to take the ward off the ANC. Not much was written about this particular swing, but to us it was very significant.
If black voters in a rural Eastern Cape ward could turn their backs on the ANC in favour of the DA, then it could happen anywhere.
It was always a matter of when – not if – the struggle credentials of the ANC would begin to fade and real life issues would start to overtake historical allegiance in the minds of voters.
That’s already happening, and it is a trend that won’t be reversed. Liberation movements across the continent have taught us this lesson. A lead role in the struggle only buys you a few decades. After that you either perform or you’re out.
The question now is: If the ANC is fading, what replaces it?
If the ANC is facing the possibility of losing its majority in the course of the next election cycle – which seems more and more likely with each passing week – where will the new majority come from?
And here the choice for voters comes down to two very clear and distinct options: Do I still see a future for a united, diverse South Africa, or is that dream no longer viable and should I rather retreat back into a lager of racial, language or religious uniformity?
There may be many options available to voters in terms of parties on the ballot, but the choice is really between these two outcomes. Because every major party in South Africa other than the DA unashamedly flies the flag for one group of South Africans only, whether this is black South Africans, Afrikaners, Zulus or Christians.
As our economic situation worsens and tensions in society rise, this movement away from the centre towards the radical edges of the political spectrum will try to gain momentum. In difficult times it’s not hard to appeal to people’s fears, and to then turn these fears into anger or hatred.
We’re seeing this across the world as the rise of identity politics and various types of nationalism end up turning citizens against each other, and against outsiders.
Here at home, the ugly scenes in Brackenfell are a stark reminder of just how destructive this brand of “us vs them” politics can be.
This is why the DA is committed to building a united, non-racial and rational centre in our politics, because this is where our new majority has to come from if we are to have any chance of success.
This is why our values and our policies are written for all South Africans – because we know that a majority brought together by a shared set of values and a shared vision for our country is the only foundation for building a future.
A majority built around a single identity like race or culture can never, ever do this.
And this is why we proudly adopted the value of non-racialism at our recent policy conference – because we cannot fix the injustice of the past by perpetuating the same divisions that caused this injustice in the first place.
In recent years we haven’t always honoured this commitment to our values. In our desperation to bring change to the metros of Gauteng, we compromised on our values by making concessions to the EFF. We can’t do that again.
The DA’s plans – and indeed our country’s future – don’t lie with a party like the EFF. Our values and our commitment to democracy and the rule of law mean that there is a red line we cannot cross. The EFF is beyond that red line.
For the DA there is only one criteria of success that matters, and that is the lived experience of people where we govern. If we compromise on this to accommodate a party that doesn’t share our belief in democracy and freedom, we will have given up everything that sets us apart.
If we are given the opportunity to govern in a city or town, it has to be felt that there is a significant change under the DA.
That change was undeniable in Nelson Mandela Bay from 2016 to 2018, and it was almost entirely undone these past two years following the NMB council coup by the ANC, UDM and EFF.
But NMB will have a DA mayor and a DA-led coalition government again, most likely in a matter of days. And that DA-led government won’t sit around crying over everything that went wrong these past two years. It will get stuck into fixing these things and putting NMB back on track.
That’s all that matters. That’s all the DA is, and should be, known for.
We have a similar opportunity in Tshwane to bring stability, accountability and clean governance back to a city that has taken a beating since falling back into the hands of the ANC.
And what we do in these metros will become the blueprint for how to build a new majority in South Africa.
We will show that there is clear blue water between the DA and the ANC on every single aspect of governing these cities.
We will show that running clean governments and shutting the patronage taps makes a noticeable difference to the level of service delivery.
We will show that a meritocracy beats cadre deployment every day of the week.
We will show that the more power you take away from government and the state and place in the hands of the people, the more you free them up to live their lives the way they choose to.
And we will show that a party that speaks for all, cares for all and is a home to all is the only way forward for our country.
I’m not saying it will be easy, but it has to be done. Because that is our country’s only hope.
In the meantime we will continue to perform our responsibility as the official opposition in parliament the only way we know how: relentlessly.
We will continue to hold the ANC government to account on every single issue and we will continue to push for the reforms that everyone – including the ANC – knows must happen.
What we won’t do, however, is take part in the ANC’s faction fights.
You don’t have to be a political analyst to recognise that Thursday’s scheduled Motion of No Confidence in President Ramaphosa is part of counter strike by the Ace Magashule faction through its proxy project, The African Transformation Movement.
It is no coincidence that this motion was brought to the national assembly the moment the legal heat was turned up on Magashule.
The DA will play no part in a war for control of the ANC, and we will not support this motion. Our 84 MPs weren’t elected to parliament to pick ANC sides. They were elected to parliament to hold the government to account, and to pass legislation that will improve the lives of South Africans. And that is what we intend to do.
So while the ANC and its proxies slug it out for power, we are officially giving President Ramaphosa this final warning and opportunity: Bring your reform agenda and table it in parliament so that we can help you pass it.
We’ve made this offer before, and I want to repeat it again because President Ramaphosa is fast running out of time. The enemies of growth sit around him on the ANC benches. They will do all they can to prevent crucial reforms from reaching the house.
But if the President were to reach across the aisle, he’ll find he probably has the majority he needs.
Let him bring his reforms and let him bring the votes of those in the ANC who back a reform agenda, and the DA will help him pass them.
He knows he can’t trust half his party, but he doesn’t have to.
But that window of opportunity is closing by the day as the ANC factions jostle for position. He must know he has a target on his back. So let him use this window while it is there.
That could be the first step towards our country’s recovery from decades of poor policies and even worse leadership.
It certainly would be the first step towards building a new majority in the centre of our politics – a majority focused, for the first time ever, on the needs of the people rather than the greed of the leaders.
Now wouldn’t that be something?
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