Classical liberals in South Africa have a very unfortunate tendency to excuse whatever the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s so-called liberal party, does. As one of the few classical liberals who is willing to publicly and passionately criticize the DA for its many imperfections, I felt it might be necessary to explain why I do so.
The DA has been South Africa’s official opposition since 1999 and remains, despite the multitude of problems with it, perhaps South Africa’s best political option in fighting off the creeping doom of national socialism espoused by the Economic Freedom Fighters, and increasingly by the African National Congress (ANC). I believe South Africa has far better non-political avenues for resistance, such as civil activism, writing, and lobbying.
If political change continues apace, however, it is likely that the DA will add Gauteng to its list of governed jurisdictions in 2024, and thus along with the Western Cape, control the economy. Come 2019, the DA might also – but I feel this is highly unlikely – be the senior party in a new national coalition government. In any event, the DA has grown substantially over the decades of its and its predecessors’ existence, and this means South Africans need to start conceiving of the party as a potential governing entity in the not-too-distant future.
What Do We Want From the DA?
The question we have to ask ourselves is what do we want a national DA government to be and do? We should not ask this question in relation to the ANC in any way, and must focus on the DA on its own merits.
The DA’s Western Cape administration is contrasted with other provinces governed by the ANC, and it is rarely, if ever, asked whether the Western Cape provincial government is living up to an objective standard of good liberal governance. For those of us who seek a society where we can pursue our own goals without unending molestation by government, I do not think the Western Cape is doing too well.
I am often accused of being ‘idealistic’ when dealing with the DA. But I rarely expect exceptional or perfect behavior from the party. Indeed, not even the Libertarian Party in the United States lives up to my ideal notion of a classical liberal party. Instead, appreciating the fact that dogmatic libertarianism will not win the DA any votes, I simply require the party to not move in the opposite direction of liberty. If it cannot be liberal in any given respect (and it should always try), then it should not do anything; and there is nothing more practical than doing nothing.
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Instead, the DA has often moved away from more freedom toward more government. For example, the DA recently decided that internet access is a ‘human right’, despite reality telling a completely different story.
Thus, here is my realistic ‘wishlist’ for a Democratic Alliance government:
- A holistic embrace of the Constitution. This means section 22 (the right to freely choose your trade and profession) is not ignored like it is by the current government and judiciary. Sex work, while it will likely continue to be strictly-regulated, needs to be substantially, if not totally, decriminalized. Anyone, whether it is the sex worker or the client, spending a second in prison for prostitution under a DA government would be a travesty. This item also means that section 1(c), which makes the Rule of Law part of our constitutional order, should be fully embraced. In other words, government officialdom must cease being given wide discretionary powers, and, wherever discretionary power is given, a strict list of criteria for how the discretion must be exercised, must be included. It should also go without saying that ‘internet access’ is not a human right, nor is it a constitutional right. The DA needs to stop this before it starts.
- Embracing constitutional free market principles. It is no secret that South Africa’s constitution is not a libertarian or classically liberal document. It has been widely referred to as ‘post-liberal’ to denote its ‘balanced’ approach to group and individual rights. Despite these issues, it is still a kinda-okay constitutional text which, if interpreted by officials and judges who understand human nature and economics, could be legally applied in a free market manner. For instance, few of the socio-economic ‘rights’ in the Bill of Rights imply direct State involvement or State control. The right to a basic education, for instance, leaves generous room for a voucher system. Furthermore, on the municipal level, DA governments can lessen the excessive street trading regulations currently in force in our cities.
- Getting civil liberty right. It is an open secret that the DA still has many social conservatives pulling at the strings in the background, which compromises the DA’s identity as a classically liberal party. The DA will not lose any votes if it does away with authoritarian alcohol regulation and embraces personal responsibility. There is also ample room for the DA to significantly curb the excessive powers of traffic ‘police’, while still being constitutional. For example, it should make a law stating that only the traffic officer, not the briber, can be punished by the criminal justice system. When you sped slightly over the arbitrary limit on a Friday afternoon, and the traffic ‘police’ threatens to throw you in jail until Monday unless you give them a bribe, you shouldn’t be punished for acting rationally. A liberal government would not allow such a miscarriage of justice. It also goes without saying that manufacturing, distribution, possession, and use of marijuana must be rendered entirely legal, in light of the developing international liberal consensus.
The DA is Not ‘Racist’; Let’s Try Honest Criticism Instead
The DA has been continuously accused of being racist.
While the party has many imperfections (which are easily solvable, or could be if its leaders exercise some foresight and open their minds), there is not and has never been any reasonable basis to consider the DA racist. Its entire history, after all, can be characterized by one term: Anti-Apartheid.
This is why it is crucial for informed and principled criticism to be leveled against the official opposition. The DA will be ill-equipped for real governance if the worst criticism ever leveled against it has been “you’re racist!” This criticism does not carry any policy or principle weight and, in South Africa, is meaningless. But you still have DA leaders go all-out to defend against it, as can be seen with Phumzile van Damme’s brilliant rebuttal of ANC Western Cape spokesperson, Yonela Diko’s, article in the Daily Maverick.
What one never sees is the DA being caught in a true, substantive, policy debate. This has greatly impoverished the party which now seems to formulate policy on the fly with little adherence to it thereafter. The most obvious recent example of this is Mmusi Maimane talking big about inclusive economic growth at the very same time the DA government in Nelson Mandela Bay is accosting street traders. The ‘permit-society’ is not a free society.
The DA needs to be held accountable and challenged. It should not be our holy cow, lest we set ourselves up for more of the same when they finally become the governing party.