BBBEE: A game of optics
10 August 2018 CURRENT AFFAIRS
By Khaya Sithole
One of the big challenges for all political parties ahead of the general election is how to woo the ‘on-the-fence’ voters. These are ordinary citizens who do not have historic loyalties to any party but rather cast a vote based on the policy proposals put on the table by any party in an electoral cycle. These must be contrasted with hardcore members of a party who – based on historic ties, legacy attachment and similar sentiments – always back one party regardless of the alternatives.
For a party like the Democratic Alliance that still seeks to unseat the ANC as the governing party, there is naturally its core constituency that is unlikely to ever see the ANC as an alternative. But as this constituency does not make up the majority of the voter base, the DA could only ever unseat the ANC if it found a way to appeal strongly to the fence-sitters who are willing to be wooed.
Anecdotally, however, given the demographics of the country, this group would be predominantly black and if they are to be wooed on issues close to their hearts, the DA needs to identify such issues and then articulate them clearly. This is why the recent fiasco regarding the DA’s position on BEE is so difficult to comprehend.
The initial pronouncements simply indicated that the party had decided to dump BEE. The abrupt nature of the statement left much to speculation and not much in the way of detail. As a consequence, the DA was predictably accused of attacking the one instrument that was designed to give black people a foot in the door in the economic world. After much confusion on social media when it appeared that even its own leaders were actually unsure what the real position is, there was an update/correction/clarification penned by Gwen Ngwenya and James Selfe. Unfortunately, more problems ensued from even that process.
As a political party, the DA should have an intimate understanding of good optics and bad optics. Their choice of a young female leader as a head of policy is to be commended – especially given the ANC’s predilection towards geriatrics. Given how we frame conversations along racial lines in the country, having a young black female leader be the face of the conversation around BEE would count as good optics. The fact that the message turned out to be so clumsy is secondary here. Just imagine if James Selfe, Natasha Mazzone or James Walters had been tasked with issuing a statement so abrupt and terse about ditching BEE! But then it went wrong. For James Selfe to have to step in and participate in the correction process degenerated into the bad optics that the DA can ill-afford. It fed into the narrative that the black leaders within the DA are constantly monitored or supervised by their white colleagues. Again the DA cannot be unaware of these sentiments and one wonders how it imagined this would be interpreted.
As it stands, we now know that the DA was really trying to say that BBBEE, as implemented by the ANC, has failed. In fact, one of the more cogent assessments of BBBEE was penned by Gwen Ngwenya herself just last week. Its essence was that – based on the available instruments of evaluation – BBBEE had done poorly in addressing the key challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty. And since a broad-based policy has to at least be accepted and accepted by society at large as something that is indeed making a difference, BBBEE fares rather poorly in that regard.
The problem for the DA, however, is that in their terse pronouncement, they did not even utilise Gwen’s article as the basis for sensitising the public on what the stance they were about to pronounce. But more crucially, the DA’s inability to put forward an alternative model alienates more than endears them to voters who regard empowerment of black people as a necessity. The real dilemma is that its limitations notwithstanding, the BBBEE concept has become internalised in South African political lexicon.
Consequently, to completely reset it and propose something new that must be embraced by voters over the next 9 months would be a massive gamble anyway. Whatever new model the DA has in mind, they couldn’t possibly formulate and communicate it in a manner that gets broad and popular buy-in between now and the general election. Perhaps the DA should have delayed its announcement until it had an alternative – any alternative – to propose. To rush into the announcement and then leave this vacuum is strange. But perhaps they took their lessons from the equally strange job by the ANC of going public about a Constitutional amendment they haven’t even started drafting.
The more things change…
Charted Accountant, Khaya Sithole is a Resident Analyst and Contributor at Kaya FM