Opinion / 30 January 2019, 12:00pm / Sechaba ka'Nkosi
JOHANNESBURG – DA policy guru Gwen Ngwenya last week finally threw in the towel, ditching her position ostensibly because she claims she had no support from party bosses.
In an emotional letter of resignation to DA leader Mmusi Maimane, Ngwenya said she was hung out to dry. She catalogued her frustrations with being isolated from party structures, rigid positions and general disregard for her role.
She said her efforts at repositioning the DA only attracted mockery and ridicule instead of encouragement from the top brass.
Ngwenya said she was nothing short of a figurehead and a victim of some machinations in the party.
For someone who sacrificed a cushy job as the chief operating officer of the SA Institute of Race Relations to become the DA’s chief strategist, her frustrations are understandable.
Except that her very background as a narrow liberal with a penchant for rabid free-market ideas that are out of touch with the country’s economic realities was always bound to blow up in her face.
In the eight months that she headed the unit, Ngwenya hardly made any meaningful contribution to a coherent party policy position, leaving the party to stutter whenever transformation was on the table.
In some instances, she chose to flip-flop on policy when the going got tough.
Rightly or wrongly, Ngwenya became the face of this confusion.
Her reasons for leaving are, therefore, also an admission that she failed dismally to stamp her authority as the party’s strategist-in-chief.
For if she did, she would have advised that the DA position on black economic empowerment (BEE) was outdated and only relevant to a few that wanted to retain the status quo.
She would have told them that the Jobs Reservation Act was not just a figment of black people’s imagination.
It was a reality that kept them out of the mainstream of the economy.
And that race and gender are dominant factors in determining power relations in South Africa 25 years into democracy.
But Ngwenya chose to look the other way.
If you thought the ANC waffle on the SA Reserve Bank was mind-boggling and the EFF hilarious on its involvement in the VBS Mutual Bank saga, then the DA, under Ngwenya’s policy stewardship, was sophomoric on transformation.
Until she was literally frogmarched to a press conference to retract that the DA had dumped BEE from its official economic transformation policies, she stood stoically in defence of some of the party’s most ill-conceived positions.
She said, with a straight face, that the DA would instead advocate for a more open economy that would give more people jobs, enhance their skill and make sure that they were adequately paid for their service to the fiscus.
That way, Ngwenya opined, the economy would be so viable that everyone would then benefit from such an opened economy.
To her, the best solution for the myriad problems that South Africa continues to face even today was to believe, perhaps naively, that April 1994 ushered in a new era where the playing field between black and white South Africa was even.
She crafted a ridiculous policy called Vula: The Open Economy, which was meant to make South Africa great again.
When Helen Zille tweeted her infamous colonial missive, Ngwenya joined many others in the DA in their sepulchral disquiet. She is yet to say something about Zille’s tax revolt.
To be fair to her, Ngwenya sometimes tried genuinely to analyse some of the country’s social ills and made some instructive observations about how only a connected few mostly benefited from the government’s transformation programmes.
But her failure to acknowledge race and gender as the twin ills of deprivation in South Africa failed her.
Her obsession with denouncing BEE and other transformative legislations was her biggest downfall.
It was as laughable as the legends of the enthusiastic American salesman who tried to sell refrigerators to Eskimos.
At 29, Ngwenya was always going to struggle to open up the minds of the far right within the DA, not only because she was a political non-entity, but because she was also naive.
To them, she was just another number in a big game of chess where powerful men set the rules.
As she correctly points out, the joint press conference she addressed with federal council chairperson James Selfe sealed her fate.
The scathing letter of resignation to Maimane states as much. “In August 2018 I published an article indicating that BEE had not lived up to expectations and that the DA was exploring a policy alternative,” she writes.
“None of that was not true. At the federal council in July I had been given a mandate to explore a non-racial alternative.
“Furthermore, I quoted your own words from a Bokamoso saying: ‘We need a wholesale change in empowerment policies, to move away from race-based policies that enable elite enrichment, towards policies that fundamentally break down the system of deprivation that still traps millions of South Africans in poverty.’
“The result of communicating what was a party mandate and the words of the federal leader was a public repudiation of my position by the federal chairperson.
“I believe he acted on the wisdom of our communications operation.
“Instead of having the courage of its convictions, at the mere whiff of a debate on BEE the party felt it best to attack the head of policy than to own up to its own structure’s decision.
“That was probably the moment at which I should have tendered my resignation; when I was hung out to dry without so much as a phone call for reiterating what the leader had months ago already said, albeit within the relative safety of a DA newsletter.”
Ngwenya, the bright youngster who once occupied the apex position of influence in opposition politics, has now become another sacrificial lamb in the corridors of power.
Her holding on to her Parliament position is more like the antics of a bully who, after being ousted from the very group of his victims, is now hovering about and itching to be accepted back into the fold.
She will be remembered as another beautiful mind sacrificed on the altar of politics and another chilling reminder of how toxic power games in South Africa can be.