170411. Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille campagning for local elections in Frankfort, Namahadi Township in the Free State Province. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

It’s not quite the DA policy conference. But it is the official opposition’s move to draw more people into its policymaking process. At the end of next month the DA holds a two-day extended federal council to adopt policy directives developed from its Eight Percent Growth Project diagnostic review. This will follow the tabling of the policy document with some 139 detailed proposals at today’s federal executive meeting for final approval.

Once passed by the extended federal council, the policy document will be tabled at the national congress in November. In the end, this process is expected to lead to the 2014 election manifesto as part of what DA leader Helen Zille has stated at various provincial party congresses is the aim of becoming the ruling party by 2019.

Months of consultations, which saw federal chairman Wilmot James criss-crossing the country to meet provincial party structures, laid the foundation for the DA’s broader canvassing on policy.

While provincial structures were largely left to decide on their own how to reach members for their input, the DA is confident all have had their say.

It is a departure from traditional policy-making whereby the federal congress was left either to adopt or reject prepared policy platforms drafted and finalised by a backroom team of researchers. And it has been different from what happened in 2010, when the DA brought together over 200 members to discuss, in groups, different policy areas.

This time round a core group of 10 – including MPs in the finance, energy and trade and industry portfolios, parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, finance honchos from the Western Cape and Cape Town administrations, party researchers and outside economist consultants drafted the Eight Percent Growth Project document.

Discussed at last September’s meeting of 50 DA seniors, where further submissions were received, the diagnostic report was finalised in December and released for circulation and discussion.

All this comes against the background of the upcoming ANC policy conference in just over three weeks, and weeks of publicity given to the ruling party’s policy discussion documents. While the ANC insists its grassroots have the final say on the policy proposals drafted by a committee at its Luthuli House headquarters – some 3 400 delegates from branches across the country will gather for the policy conference at the end of this month in Midrand – the DA policy document stays under wraps until after adoption at next month’s meeting.

The question arises: how far is the opposition’s new approach to policymaking informed by what analysts have described as the DA’s repositioning away from being seen as an elitist political party to becoming more representative amid its claims that election results show it is making inroads among township and black middle class voters?

University of Cape Town politics lecturer Zwelethu Jolobe says such policy canvassing and meetings are “consistent with larger organisations, where you have different groupings with different ideas what to do” and are key to legitimising policies on the basis of which voters can decide how to cast their ballots.

“As they (the DA) get bigger and as they want to include more and more people, they have to find ways on a much more serious level to aggregate interests,” Jolobe says, adding that in some ways the DA’s hands may have been forced.

To extend voting support, he says, it was vital to tap into the “massive army of young unemployed”, who are not necessarily tied to ideological ideas but want work.

But it’s tricky political terrain for the DA.

While Mazibuko’s election as parliamentary leader last December was widely interpreted as a sign, although not a guarantee, that the DA has the potential to change and attract diverse support, including from the estimated three million young voters, the battle for what many analysts like Adam Habib call the heart and soul is not over yet.

The DA already stands accused of using underhand strategies and tactics to exploit poor black South Africans frustrated by government’s often slow service delivery record – most recently at last month’s march to Cosatu House over the youth wage subsidy, which the DA supports and the labour federation rejects.

That entry into the protest march terrain, which is closely associated with the ruling party and its alliance partners, turned violent and showed the inherent challenges of appropriating the struggle battleground.

However, with the DA’s efforts to broaden input into policymaking, it appears the party remains determined to crack the ANC and alliance partners’ hold on the business of politics.

It’s not the first time the DA has appropriated ANC icons, symbols and credentials. Madiba and the rainbow nation were claimed prominently during the 2011 local government election campaign which was launched at Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955. In the closing 2011 municipal poll rally in Khayelitsha, Zille told supporters the DA was the only party of diversity, delivery and reconciliation and “working hard to build on Madiba’s legacy”.

This year various provincial party congresses heard how the DA was the only party showing diversity on the road to reconciliation and the custodian of constitutional rights and freedoms under attack by the ANC and government through, for example, the review of the impact of Constitutional Court and Supreme Court of Appeal judgments.

These overt manoeuvrings have annoyed the ANC and its alliance partners to various degrees. But perhaps more than that, they have fed into what communist leader Blade Nzimande calls the anti-majoritarian liberal offensive of those who still want to cling to past power relations which put white South Africans in charge, rather than accepting today’s field of play.

And the rhetoric of the liberal offensive has been adopted among trade unions and activists amid critical talk that the ANC government itself had adopted many DA-style policies like e-tolling on Gauteng’s highways and its refusal to ban labour brokers.

The DA’s wider consultative policymaking process underscores the fact that policy discussion is no longer the sole domain of the ruling party and its alliance partners.

And thus the terrain of policy contestation remains volatile across the domestic political landscape.

Yet the DA insists its Eight Percent Growth Project holds the key: it argues SA’s woes would be solved by sustained, high and job-creating growth on the back of incentives for the private sector, rather than state intervention, while the high concentration of monopolies in key sectors and the state-owned enterprises would have to be addressed to boost competition so consumers could enjoy lower prices.

Under the banner of “stakeholder capitalism”, it seeks to get the poor and marginalised into the formal economy – with jobs identified as the top priority – in turn raising income levels to offset increasing social grants dependence, pull poor people out of poverty and provide redress for persistent apartheid-era inequalities.

In some ways it is a continuation of its “open opportunity society” policy platform adopted in 2010, which argued that every citizen would be provided with a minimum basic standard of quality services, or “a framework of choice”, to take advantage of “sustained, job-creating economic growth”, quality eduction and constitutional freedoms.

The current diagnostic review is framed largely in the negative, outlining with detailed statistics the failings of the current government – four ministers deal with economic matters, it points out – with regards to crumbling infrastructure, ineffective black economic empowerment and employment equity policies and a failing education system.

However, the Eight Percent Growth Project document holds policy nuggets.

On skills, it emphasises improved tertiary education and immigration reform to attract skills.

On the labour law front, it suggests a “pragmatic solution” to break the deadlock of “the high cost and administrative burden of dismissing unsuitable or unproductive employees” and getting young people into jobs by easing labour market rigidity.

It is understood the policy document proposes changes to specific clauses in various labour laws.

Red tape and costs linked to setting up businesses and delays in exports and imports must be cut – it is understood there will be detailed targets of how many days and documents it should take to import or export – while improving access to finance for entrepreneurs is highlighted as part of the effort to allow entry into the formal economy, reversing the trend of increasing informalisation.

Getting rid of bureaucracy to streamline infrastructure development is also proposed, while industrial development zones and BEE must be governed by incentives, rather than state intervention.

It rejects nationalisation of mines as unfeasible: as mines together have a market capitalisation of R1.9 trillion, it would cripple the economy, put at risk half a million jobs and do little to advance economic empowerment.

Much of the diagnostic report, and the policy document, has been informed by the DA’s experience in government in the Western Cape, Cape Town and a plethora of other municipalities.

Next month the decision on whether policies will be adopted lies with the extended federal council, which includes the national leader, provincial leaders, chairpersons and financial officers, the parliamentary leader and chief whip, the CEO, the national finance and legal heads, a set number of MPs, MPLs and councillors and those representing the youth, women, overseas branches and regional caucuses where more than 80 000 votes were reached. Once adopted, the policies will be implemented where the DA governs.

Elsewhere in the country, these policies will be the bedrock of attracting voters to realise the DA dream of clinching power in the Northern Cape and Gauteng in 2014, and becoming the official opposition in places like KwaZulu-Natal on the road to national victory in 2019.

However, the question remains whether the DA can convince not only its members, regardless of their residential address, but also broader society that its wider approach to policy-making underscores its responsiveness to diverse support.