As South Africa gets ready for a long general election campaign that will probably reach its result in April, the rhetorical stürm und drang that accompanies these things can easily hide a general consensus about how the country should proceed. Indeed, there is less real disagreement about policies needed among major political players than might at first seem. Mostly they argue about who’d be most efficient at directing the same policies.
As this column has pointed out before, the fact of an ever-widening welfare net seems to be accepted across parliamentary lines, with the official opposition Democratic Alliance arguing for expansion of this. Similarly with land reform. Meanwhile, the all-encompassing National Development Plan – although sometimes self-contradictory – enjoys the support of all parties in parliament, an extraordinary development. It also has the stated backing of major business formations. One wonders how many of the NDP’s supporters have actually read its more than 500 pages.
But support for current state policy isn’t quite unanimous. For one, the left-field Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema can be expected to take seats in the National Assembly in blunt opposition to the NDP. They will continue their call for greater state economic intervention and for land and mining nationalisation.
From the other end of the spectrum comes the opposition of the SA Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank founded in 1929, whose core philosophical approach is of the colour-blind state using a light touch in shaping society.
The SAIRR’s outgoing CEO, John Kane-Berman, is travelling the country proposing a 12-point policy turnaround in contradiction to the NDP. His ideas, he acknowledges, “hold out a vision of something fundamentally different, no matter how fanciful this might seem at first”. But if they’re so fanciful, then why bother according them attention?
Firstly, because Kane-Berman is being too hard on himself. The ideas he proposes are these days unremarkable in many parts of the world in their call for deregulation, a withdrawal by the state from service delivery in various areas, and for government facilitation of private initiative instead.
That they stand in contradiction to the shibboleths of current SA thinking is more descriptive of how rooted is the South African belief in the need for overarching plans and communal direction, than it is of anything else.
But if that makes the sorts of changes Kane-Berman proposes politically unfeasible, then that surely matters. Why bother with policy proposals that are “so out there” that they’ll anyway never be given proper weight, nor implemented?
Because, argues the SAIRR, it is from little acorns that mighty oaks grow. The institute points to a similar 10-point plan proposed by them in 1985 and which was dismissed as unrealistic then. Those ideas, including the release of political prisoners, full-scale constitutional negotiations, the ending of states of emergency, and a unified non-racial political system, came to pass and culminated in President Nelson Mandela’s inauguration less than a decade on.
Argues Kane-Berman: “Ideas are critical. They predate policies. And they last longer… Business has for too long been on the defensive. It should stop buying into poor policies and impossible plans. Instead it should be far more aggressive in putting the case for growth”.
– Paul Pereira. First published in The Citizen, 22 November 2013.