SA’s GNU is not a ‘social democratic consensus’: Ivo Vegter - Biznews

Jun 14, 2024
In Daily Maverick, Ferial Haffajee hails a ‘centre of consensus that is broadly social democratic’. Excuse me, what?
SA’s GNU is not a ‘social democratic consensus’: Ivo Vegter - Biznews

Ivo Vegter’s discussion revolves around the feasibility of a Government of National Unity (GNU) in South Africa, with varied ideological perspectives. While some advocate for a social democratic centre, others argue for a centrist government based on liberal principles. The potential coalition’s ideological differences raise questions about its stability and effectiveness.

Ivo Vegter

In Daily Maverick, Ferial Haffajee hails a ‘centre of consensus that is broadly social democratic’. Excuse me, what?

Some of our commentariat seem to be engaged more in wishful thinking than political analysis.

Cogitating upon the speculative possibility of a government of national unity (GNU) comprising the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the Patriotic Alliance (PA), and Rise Mzansi (RM), an associate editor of the Daily Maverick, Ferial Haffajee, had this to say on Wednesday: ‘With a centre of consensus that is broadly social democratic, if conservative-populist on some of their respective policy planks, South Africa can fashion a craft to set sail into what is often called its uncharted new territory.’

She adds: ‘The five parties have a similar economic outlook: all believe in a mixed economy with redistributive policies, including social income support and better education policies.’

This is an extraordinary description of what such a GNU would look like.

The ideology of none of the prospective members is explicitly social democratic, and their economic policies vary wildly, both in their practical content and their theoretical basis.

Writes Haffajee: ‘South Africa needs a steady centre which is not a centrist, but a social democrat centre, to expand energy, logistics, crime and corruption reforms to rebuild the economy and get employment going.’

This is an opinion, and not an analysis. It is the expression of a wish.

In my view, South Africa needs a centrist government based upon classical liberal principles, and not social democratic values. That is, equally, an opinion, and a wish.

Haffajee is right to distinguish social democracy from centrism, however, since it is a distinctively left-wing political movement.

Social democracy
Let’s define what we’re talking about here.

Social democracy is a movement that emerged from 19th-century Marxist thought and sought to achieve socialism through peaceful democratic means, rather than by violent revolution.

It is not just a nice term for a liberal capitalist democracy with a welfare state. It developed in opposition to liberal capitalism, and overlaps to a large extent with democratic socialism.

Although it preserves the trappings of a multi-party democracy, it is, at its core, a left-wing ideology that falls within the broader international socialist movement.

Although the ANC describes itself as a revolutionary organisation, one might describe its practical ideology as social democratic, inasmuch as it does not promote the violent overthrow of capitalism, and instead pursues a more gradualist approach to socialism.

Rise Mzansi is not particularly clear about its political and economic ideology. Though it seeks 6% per annum GDP growth, which can only be achieved through substantial liberalisation of the capitalist economy, its manifesto suggests that the dire state of South Africa is largely due to problems of leadership and implementation, rather than policy direction.

It, too, might not cringe at being described as social democratic.

The IFP is a conservative party, shot through with neo-feudal and populist ideas.

However, to quote its manifesto, it ‘champions inclusive, market-led economic policies that empower all South Africans and contribute to the country’s overall economic growth and development’.

Although it promises to substantially increase the ‘social wage’ expenditure on the part of government, and its economic policies are a bit of a mishmash of deregulation and interventionism, its ideology is firmly rooted in liberal capitalism, and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as socialist or social democratic in orientation.

The PA is probably the furthest removed from social democracy of all the parties in this putative GNU. It is more than just conservative. It can better be described as a far-right theo-fascist party. If you called it social democratic to its face, you’d probably get glassed.

The minnows don’t matter that much, though, and can probably be waved away with Haffajee’s caveat, ‘if conservative-populist on some of their respective policy planks’.

What matters is where the DA stands. And although it is neither conservative nor populist, it, too, is miles away from the left-wing economic principles of social democracy.

Social market economy
The DA has on occasion used the term ‘social market economy’ to describe its ideological position. This term is originally associated with the economic model of the former West Germany and describes a system of free-market capitalism that is regulated to ensure fair competition and taxed to provide for a welfare state.

Although the DA doesn’t use this term in its manifesto, it is consistent with its views on redress, fairness, and equal opportunities. It remains a party that is explicitly dedicated to individual liberty and free enterprise, however.

To suggest that its ideology is ‘social democratic’ is either to stretch the definition of that term beyond utility, or it is simply wishful thinking on the part of a left-wing journalist. I think it is the latter.

The GNU that is emerging (and may have emerged by the time you read this) is not a government of ‘consensus’. It is a government of widely disparate views.

Whereas the ANC wishes to expand the government’s control over the economy, the DA seeks to roll it back dramatically. Whereas the ANC continues to support race-based affirmative action measures, the DA seeks to base redress policies on actual disadvantage. Whereas the ANC seeks to increase minimum wages and union protections, the DA wants to liberalise the labour market.

And we’re not even talking about the truly challenging task of dismantling cadre deployment, rooting out corruption and cracking down on the organised crime networks that have their tentacles in government and state-owned enterprises at all levels. The blowback will be tremendous.

If we get an ANC-DA-plus GNU, it will be a government of dissensus. It will spend much of its time locked in policy dispute.

John Endres, the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations, makes a good argument for the view that the DA should commit to a coalition (a GNU is just a broad coalition) with the ANC, ‘to support the constitutionalists and the pro-growth cause against the very real threat posed by populists and left-wing authoritarians’.

Martin van Staden, the head of policy at the Free Market Foundation, also makes a good argument that a GNU will be a government of unity only in name, and will not last long, preferring instead that the DA offer a confidence and supply arrangement to keep the ANC in power while remaining on opposition.

I’m inclined to agree with Van Staden. I am not convinced the DA should surrender the bully pulpit of the official opposition in favour of a precarious GNU in which it is likely to get steamrollered, only for the GNU to collapse a year or two hence in favour of an ANC-EFF-plus coalition after all.

Today, we may discover the outcome of this brief fortnight’s negotiations to form a government, but whatever it is, it won’t be a ‘centre of consensus that is broadly social democratic’.

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.

SA’s GNU is not a ‘social democratic consensus’: Ivo Vegter - Biznews

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