BEE is killing South Africa and looming new laws will make matters worse, but the good news is that opposition to BEE is growing, and is likely to make gains in the national election. According to News24, however, that is not newsworthy. According to News24 the debate between race nationalists and classical liberals is ‘utterly irrelevant’, at least when it comes to understanding the DA’s growth.

The piece reproduced lower down was rejected by News24, which is not, in itself, a big drama. Understandably, over the years News24 has from time to time rejected pieces submitted by the IRR, and we moved on without complaint. But something amazing seems to have happened in the build up to the 2024 national election.

To understand the significance, it is necessary to recall how different 2024 is to 2019. Five years ago, classical liberal opposition to BEE was almost defunct. The DA was pushing BEE-lite, the ANC was pushing BEE for billionaires (forever), and the EFF was pushing BEE to the death. Less than 5% of parliament seriously opposed BEE-style race-laws the day after the 2019 election. Cry the beloved country, you might say.

Then, later in 2019, the DA changed its policy. At the time, the received ‘wisdom’ among most professional talkers (including at News24) was that the DA would get cheers from think tanks like the IRR but would lose many votes. Many experts ‘explained’ that ordinary South Africans could never support the classic version of liberalism (individuals first, merit first, freedom first) over the condescending version (race first, service delivery later, accountability only for white-on-black crimes whether real or fabricated).

But April 2024 polls suggested the ‘experts’ were wrong, which is called ‘news’ in most countries. The DA looks likely to get more votes, and specifically more votes from black people, than ever before, come the end of May. That is good news, although some deem it not to be newsworthy.

The same polls also distressingly indicate a hardcore minority appetite for black fascism, which in any other country would be considered newsworthy too. But not in this country’s biggest digital newspaper.

Make no mistake, the DA is not alone in embracing the growth incentives of cutting BEE. By my count 35% – 40% of Parliament will outright oppose BEE in public procurement, public employment, and private employment by June 2024. (Several parties want black-only sovereign investment funds as part of the offramp). Is that enough? No, of course not, in a democracy 51% is decisive not 40%. Is that a major change? Yes. Newsworthy? Absolutely. Reported? No. Debated? No.

The five-year rise of the post-BEE liberal consensus is treated by some as if it is utterly irrelevant.

Why? I don’t know. But I do know, because I have spoken to many professionals over the years, that many people of all races who resent BEE keep their mouths shut about it, because they think the alternative, open debate, will backfire.

Some analysts clearly want the DA to act like one of those silent, backroom professionals, quietly crunching numbers, not making a fuss, hoping to keep the wheels turning while someone else, somewhere else, eventually makes race law go away. Or hoping it will evaporate like a pool of clear water in the sun.

But BEE will not go like that. It will not be stopped without a fight. Hard work is essential, yes. Filling potholes, yes. Paperwork, yes. But is all that hard work enough for any serious opposition party? No. 

Any organization that wants to be truly successful must work hard and smart. Opposing BEE is the smartest thing the DA has done this side of Zuma’s first presidential heh heh heh. The DA should be advertising its commitment to stop BEE, front and center. So should all the others. Evidence backs this up, as does common sense.

As Chris Pappas pointed, out in a recent BEE-vs-classical liberal debate moment, the number one thing most people want from pilots and plumbers is competence, not racial resemblance, and this should be mainstreamed by the 2024 election.

On the other hand, some smart people disagree. Pieter du Toit, assistant editor of News24, is one of them. He praised the DA for working quietly in the backroom, but said debates about BEE are ‘utterly irrelevant’. To be precise, he wrote that ‘debates about classical liberalism are utterly irrelevant’.

But the Sunday Times and The Economist both criticised the DA’s ‘classical liberal’ position within days of du Toit’s piece. In other words the thing that he deemed ‘utterly irrelevant’ was front and centre the main point of criticism from the most high profile critics against the DA in the next few days. That alone should have made Du Toit laugh at himself and say ‘eish, I got that wrong. No biggie, live and learn.’

I wrote a response to News24 that they declined to publish. Why? I don’t know. I thought, not for the first time, that maybe I just don’t know how to write in English very nicely.

But then News24 gave two attempted justifications for the rejection that are so odd they suggested something else. First, they claimed du Toit’s mention of ‘classical liberalism’ was a mere ‘throwaway line’.

This is odd because Du Toit did not just mention ‘classical liberalism’ once in passing, he went over the phrase twice, emphatically the second time, and as the only credible term of policy.

News24 also said ‘there is quite a bit of self-promotion going on’, in my submission, as if it has ever blocked an outside contributor because they refer to their organisation’s earlier good work.

Still, no one likes a braggart, so I went back to check if I wrote anything gratuitous about the IRR’s many accomplishments as the oldest classical liberal think tank in Africa over the last 90+ years. Did I wax lyrical about Helen Suzman’s leadership, or Nelson Mandela’s classical liberal scholarship more than half a century ago? No.

News24 pointed in their complaint to hyperlinks I included to classical liberal articles concerning BEE. But this is not mere self-promotion. These hyperlinks are evidence to contradict du Toit’s claim that such points are ‘utterly irrelevant’ since they show that other publications thought that such points are fit to print.

The most obvious point (I thought) for News24 was that they published a debate that Mlondi Mdluli (a former IRR colleague, classically liberal DA MP candidate) and I had with two illiberal ‘social justice’ warriors in News24. So they used to think this was relevant.

What changed? When exactly did classical liberal positions against BEE radically transform from fit to print into ‘utterly irrelevant’ at News24?

I do not know. I am at a loss. When I wrote my response, I hoped that Du Toit would either argue back intelligently about something I missed or admit that he made a mistake. We all make mistakes. For all I knew at the time he might have tried writing ‘classical liberal debates against BEE are utterly convincing’ before stumbling over some typos. Hey, I have a generous imagination.

But instead of argument or admission News24 followed up its claim that anti-BEE debate is utterly irrelevant by shutting down the conversation.

To make matters worse, this is the 8th piece in a row by classical liberal IRR contributors that News24 has declined since last year. Most have been by other writers.

One (see here) exposed a years-long coverup of BEE Premiums after an internal Treasury study showed they were hitting 20%. Some people would call that newsworthy, but not News24.

Another was about BEE trillions. It showed, for the first time ever, that BEE companies have been paid over R3 trillion since 2017 according to Treasury data. That, again, is treated as utterly irrelevant.

News24 did later publish a piece about Shell’s alleged BEE divestment before publishing another article that denied BEE was to blame. Does that cover all the ‘relevant’ bits?

The painful point, on a personal note, is that I still look up to Du Toit as a hard worker, conscientious, and a top-tier investigator. He is one of South Africa’s best.

But I strongly disagree that BEE premiums, or black business trillions, or across racial millions of individual South Africans who prefer a classically liberal termination of BEE, are utterly irrelevant. They matter. It also matters that the debate about this happens openly.

The following is the submission made to News24:

The DA and post-BEE policy – a more serious debate needed

Gabriel Crouse 

In his recent election analysis, News24 assistant editor Pieter du Toit argued that while DA stalwarts were not ‘very sexy’, they have succeeded in several unglamorous ways that matter more than ever before, since “voters will have to make practical and logical choices this time around”.

Du Toit also wrote that DA-related ‘debates about classical liberalism are utterly irrelevant’. Really? I have publicly called Du Toit ‘South Africa’s preeminent editor’, but this statement of his was objectionable.

It is almost certainly true that you could ask a million random South Africans on the street for their opinion on ‘debates about classical liberalism’ and get a million versions of ‘huh?’

But everyone knows what BEE is in the broader sense: post-apartheid race law, and almost everyone has an opinion about BEE, often a strong one. Furthermore, political experts know that the “debates about classical liberalism” in South Africa generally and the DA specifically are primarily about whether to support some form of BEE, as defined above, or to overturn it fundamentally.

News24 carried the most punchy headline on this topic in a 2019 piece by Ralph Mathekga titled: ‘DA’s classical liberalism borders on classical lunacy’. That piece centred on a single aspect of DA policy, namely its call to ‘abandon race-based policies in favour of race-blind policies’, which Mathekga considered politically insane.

Peter Bruce, TimesLIVE ‘editor-at-large’, feels the same now. He recently bemoaned the DA’s shift back to the ‘control’ of ‘classic liberals‘. How so? Only one policy was mentioned, again the DA’s turn against BEE, which was described as ‘wildly misguided’, ‘an historic error’ and an ‘expensive conceit’.

Make no mistake, “classical liberalism” is not only, contextually, about getting over BEE. The tradition spans centuries, or even millennia. But Bruce and Mathekga are not alone in boiling down “debates about classical liberalism” here to pro-BEE versus post-BEE visions of the rainbow republic.

Here is Wits sociologist Roger Southall making the same move, in saying ‘the DA’s classical liberalism has run up against the problem of how to address racial disadvantage’, which “played out” as the debate ‘over whether or not to support Black Economic Empowerment, an affirmative action policy’.

As another example, this 2023 academic paper by two Rhodes University linguists describe the post-BEE DA as ‘widely seen as a defeat for the pro-Black Economic Empowerment faction of the party, and a victory for the party’s older…classical liberal base’.

So that is how others frame the debate – BEE versus classical liberalism. But, hold on, everyone knows “BEE”, while “classical liberalism” is a fringe term, so why are these standard academic and newspaper labels for the antipodes?

One way to answer the question is by asking yourself, what other label is there for post-BEE policy? The most obvious label for non-racial policies is “non-racialism”, but BEE proponents cannot, for legal reasons, call BEE alternatives “non-racial”. There is a similar problem with “merit” as a label that frames the debate (though it works within debates). So, the debate is sometimes framed as BEE versus “classical liberalism” instead.

With those facts in mind, what could Du Toit have meant by writing that “debates about classical liberalism are utterly irrelevant”? He might decide to answer that, or not.

Whatever he meant, the title of his piece included the phrase ‘what voters really want’, so public opinion surveys, and Parliamentary business, and mass impacts, are worth considering.

Polling and Policy Development

The Social Research Foundation (SRF) published a report titled, Policy Preferences for a Future Coalition Government – BEE. The report is based on ‘a survey of 1 835 demographically and geographically representative registered voters’ during April 2024. Here is one of the twin prompts that respondents were asked to pick between (with added emphasis).

A) “A future coalition government makes race-based appointment rules stricter, so that only black people can be appointed as government officials.”

(Note that this is not a real policy on offer from the ANC).

B) “A future coalition government gets rid of race-based appointments so that all government officials are appointed only on merit.”

This is the DA’s “classical lunacy”, or “classic liberalism”, or “merit” or “non-racial” policy.

Over 20% of all respondents “strongly agree” with A). That is extreme, alarming, and relevant. Look around the world and you will struggle to find such a high appetite for the first plank of fascism, which is the racial homogenization of state workers.

Also relevant, 68% “strongly agree” with B), DA policy. 

Here is another prompt-pair from the BEE report (with added emphasis).

A) “A future coalition government makes race-based procurement rules stricter, so that only black-owned companies can win government tenders.”

(Again, this is not a real policy on offer from the ANC.)

B) “A future coalition government gets rid of race-based procurement policies in the public service so that all tenders are issued only on merit.” 

25% “strongly agree” with A), which is another relevant warning on the appetite for a second fascist plank, the racial homogenisation of government outsourcing.

63% “strongly agree”, with B), another DA policy.

The BEE vs classical liberalism debate matters in Parliamentary business too. The ANC is trying to rush through the Public Procurement Bill, which will change what Treasury Executive Director Willie Mathebula told me he is happy to call “BEE premiums”. These are the extra amounts that high-scoring BEE companies can be paid, capped at a nominal 25% in the current system, to be replaced by “set-asides” in the system to come.

Treasury repeatedly promised that less than 100% of all public procurement, which exceeds R1 trillion, will be “set-aside” for majority black-owned businesses, or women businesses, however it refuses to set the “threshold” until after the Bill is passed into law.

Some of my arguments against BEE premiums can be read here in the Daily Maverick, here in the Daily Friend, and here, based on the Zondo Report, in News24. The upshot is that the BEE premium system is relevant to the tune of hundreds of billions of rands, or trillions cumulatively in the last 16 years, and helps explain why the black unemployment rate doubled in the BEE-era.

On the employment side of BEE, Mlondi Mdluli, now a DA MP candidate, and I last year engaged in a fairly typical ‘classical liberal’ debate on News24’s pages with two “social justice” BEE proponents. Mlondi and I showed, using incontrovertible court documents, that BEE has directly been used to block black people from promotion and we argued that BEE has been harmful to millions of poor black people.

Like most voters, we want a post-BEE South Africa now. Mlondi is trying to achieve that by campaigning for the DA. His courage, insight, and discipline amaze me.

Politics 

I don’t think talking about this within and across like-minded groups is ‘utterly irrelevant’, but I do think voters are bitterly under-informed. 

Several parties oppose BEE in procurement and employment, including the FF+, ACDP, ASA, Cope, BOSA. Do readers know why, or what alternatives those parties propose? More serious debate on the law of the land would help.

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Gabriel Crouse is a Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). He holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.