How does business feature in manifestos of the major political parties contesting May 29 election?

Analysing the 2024 election manifestos of the parties currently representing more than 90% of the electorate, the results are illuminating. Photographer: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers.

Analysing the 2024 election manifestos of the parties currently representing more than 90% of the electorate, the results are illuminating. Photographer: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers.

Published Mar 27, 2024


The question is more than academic as the importance placed on business within a manifesto suggests much about how a party understands and views the economy and its ideological and policy orientation regarding the relationship between business, the state, labour and civil society.

This ranges from a broadly sympathetic approach to business and its operating challenges, or conversely, accusations of its complicity in exploitation, corruption and malfeasance. The treatment of business within a manifesto is also suggestive of the respective party’s current and aspirational electoral constituency and even sources of funding.

One simple measure of its importance to a party is the frequency with which the term “business” or “businesses” appears in a manifesto. Analysing the 2024 election manifestos of the parties representing more than 90% of the electorate, the results are illuminating.

Of course, not all manifestos and measures are equal. Opposition parties enjoy the freedom to conflate electoral policies and promises with unrealisable wish lists. Given its 30-year track record in the government, the pledges made in the ANC 2024 election manifesto can be evaluated against its treatment of business over the past three decades.

To a lesser degree, the same applies to the DA election manifesto, given its governance of the Western Cape for the past 15 years.

Throughout its 58 pages, the ANC manifesto references business and businesses 14 times. Most of these address small business and the role the ANC has and intends playing in its promotion through the creation of an enabling policy environment. While the terms industry, industrialisation and industrial are referenced no less than 47 times, they are never conjoined directly with business.

Notably, jobs are referenced 20 times in the ANC manifesto and while frequently linked to the terms industry and industrialisation, again, they are never linked with business. The disjuncture speaks to the ideological, conceptual and policy gap that is a source of our country’s poor economic, industrial and employment performance.

Characterised by its opponents as the party of big business, the DA manifesto references business and businesses 21 times in its 51-pages. In contrast to the generalised statements of its ANC rival manifesto, the DA document specifically promises a policy environment conducive to business growth. Such pro-business policy reform centres on improving the ease of doing business, cutting red tape, amending labour legislation and attracting investment, among other things, through one-stop-shops.

But the most radical business-orientated pledge is the scrapping of Broad-based BEE policies and legislation, and their replacement with the internationally recognised Sustainable Development Goals. Such pledges may be pro-business but vote losers among some constituencies.

The EFF’s 260-page election manifesto contains simultaneously threats and promises with respect to business. Given its socialist orientation, state ownership of business and nationalisation are core planks of its electoral pledges.

The expropriation of mines, banks and other strategic sectors of the economy without compensation constitutes one of the seven pillars of the EFF manifesto. Radical economic transformation is complemented, however, by pledged support for business education, women and youth-based and business. Notably, sex work is to be decriminalised under a future EFF government.

For the first post-Buthelezi IFP election manifesto, the focus on business is local. Practically all 10 references to business or businesses in the IFP manifesto speak to the development of and support for small business and preference for South African businesses and employees. It remains to be seen whether such “South Africans first” pledges will translate into votes, but such local and nationalist economic appeals have resonated elsewhere internationally.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Herman Mashaba’s background, the Action SA election manifesto contains no less than 40 references to business or businesses in its 70 pages. Indeed, Action SA’s stands out as the most pro-business among all manifestos. Frequently stressing its commitment to support small and local business, among other things, through the establishment of an “opportunity fund”, Action SA pledges fiscal reform, cutting red tape and forging an entrepreneur and business-friendly environment in which 4.8 million jobs are to be created over five years. Among all 2024 election manifestos, Action SA’s is also the only one to explicitly link the importance of recrafting the relationship between business and the government.

What then of the electoral outliers? Intriguingly, the three-page Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK) Party manifesto references neither business nor industry once. Perhaps more perplexing is the fact that the document mentions jobs just once, pledging to create five million of the national rarities over five years. This is to be done by focusing on sectors such as mining, agriculture, re-industrialisation, tourism and infrastructure development. It may be deduced then, that it is not the content and pledges made in the MK election manifesto that are driving the party’s growing support.

But perhaps one of the more surprising findings of the analysis is the prominence of business in the manifestos of parties as disparate as the United Democratic Movement and the Freedom Front Plus. The UDM lists building business confidence as a priority, referencing the sector on 22 occasions over its 26-page manifesto. While not as frequently referenced in its 28 pages, the FF+ manifesto is crystal clear on the importance of the business community and the vitality of a free market system, even promising tax rebates for private companies fulfilling government functions.

Thus, it’s a mixed picture when examining how business is treated by the respective party manifestos.While business is a vital stakeholder in South Africa’s political economy it is not recognised, acknowledged and accommodated in many of the 2024 election party manifestos. Business should be asking, Why not?

Ian Kilbride is the Chairman, Spirit Invest, Honorary Professor, Stellenbosch Business School [email protected]