JOHANNESBURG — The year 2018 was annus horribilis for the Democratic Alliance as it lurched from one self-inflicted crisis to the next. It’s poor handling of the likes of Patricia de Lille come top of mind. But the DA has accelerated its poor form in 2019 with yet more puzzling missteps. For starters, the party put up a billboard in Johannesburg earlier this month detailing how the ANC is ‘killing’ its own people, citing the Marikana and Life Esidimeni tragedies and listing the names of those who died. A billboard like this is fair game in our country considering the sheer ineptitude of the ANC in recent years. But the DA made the incredible error of not actually speaking to the victims’ family members before putting up such a billboard, offending many of them. Then you have the curious resignation of Solly Msimanga as Tshwane Mayor – he’s been under pressure over problems with the city manager post in the council as well as an allegedly inflated city tender agreement. Msimanga is now the DA’s candidate for Gauteng Premier. But probably the most distressing revelation about the DA dropped like a bombshell on Thursday when the party’s much-respected policy head Gwen Ngwenya‘s resignation letter became public. The letter (which is published in full below) makes for startling reading, highlighting how the party allegedly doesn’t take policy seriously and how the DA failed to formalise Ngwenya’s job description and role within the organisation. To be fair, Ngwenya controversially called for the scrapping of BEE as it currently stands in SA. While Ngwenya proposed that BEE could be replaced by a better, fairer system that could actually boost greater black participation and inclusion in the economy, the reality is that the optics of dumping BEE in SA is a risky one for the DA in its quest to attract more black voters. However, by not fully engaging with her ideas, the DA overall comes off badly. Worse still, it’s policies aren’t clear just months before an election. The buck ultimately stops with Mmusi Maimane and he still has to face his biggest test yet come election time. – Gareth van Zyl
By Gwen Ngwenya*
Dear Mmusi Maimane,
Please regard this letter as my official resignation from the role of Head of Policy of the Democratic Alliance. The resignation should not come as a surprise and you will be familiar with most of the reasons detailed below as they have been raised periodically since my appointment. I will, however, set them out here again for the sake of clarity and closure.
Terms of hire were never met: When I was approached to head up policy for the DA I was assured that the policy unit would have the support of the leadership, be semi-independent and would be there to provide unfettered advice based on research to the party. In addition, I would receive resources to fulfil the job, as well as the ability to recruit my own staff. None of these terms were partially, let alone wholly, fulfilled. Instead I was often hung out to dry in the face of unhappiness with policy within the party, there were untouchable policy areas, no budget was designated to the policy unit, and no additional staff could be hired. If these had been the terms presented to me from the onset there is every likelihood I would not have accepted the offer.
No job description: I have never had a job description. A job description has been requested on numerous occasions since my arrival. It is a standard professional requirement, without which it is difficult to formalise my responsibilities as well as mandate.
Inexperienced research staff: On my arrival I conducted a skills audit of the researchers in the policy unit. It was soon apparent that for all of them this was their first serious research job and that they had recently graduated from university. We were trying to extract from those researchers more than they could reasonably deliver. The policy offer for the national government in waiting should not rest on the shoulders of 3 inexperienced researchers. Furthermore, many senior leaders expressed to me that the researchers were not up to the task, yet I was not in any position to immediately fire them without placing the DA in violation of labour laws.
I have accepted Gwen Ngwenya letter of resignation as head of policy. She remains an MP, wish her well. I have a process which is finalizing our policies on jobs. These will be expressed in our manifesto. It shares a vision of 1SA4All. It’s dynamic and focused on our future
— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) January 24, 2019
No budget: No budget was allocated to the policy unit and therefore to policy development. There was the possibility to motivate for funds on a case by case basis, but it was made clear that only a small amount was available that could cover refreshments for workshops etc. The result is that there was no budget to meet with experts around the country, party constituents, to purchase the data, reports, software etc. necessary to run a competitive research operation. There is no reason why the party cannot have a policy unit that rivals any of the think tanks from which we constantly seek advice. However, setting up such a unit will require a reasonable financial commitment from the party. The party spends more on temporary billboards and other marketing than it does on developing a longer-lasting comprehensive policy blueprint for the country.
Terms of reference not approved: Policy cannot be developed or live in a silo. For that reason, I drafted terms of reference to situate the policy unit within the party and to outline how it interacts with other structures regarding policy. These terms of reference have never been tabled for discussion or signed off by any structure whether it be NMC, Fedex or Federal Council. Therefore, it was not just myself in limbo (with no job description) but the entire unit did not have clarity about its mandate within the party. Effectively policy could be developed and signed off without our knowledge, and we also had no ability to correct or advice on media communication that contradicted policy unless our opinion was expressly sought. The policy unit therefore lives day by day working on piecemeal tasks without the mandate to develop a long-term strategy.
Reporting lines: As the head of the policy unit my initial reporting line was to the Federal Chairperson, subsequently it changed to the Federal Leader. The challenge is that meetings were outside of party structures, which meant that a) it was an additional diary obligation which was often difficult to fit in and b) not all information relevant to the policy making process reached my attention. As an example, I asked long before the campaign launch to be involved in the discussions on the campaign message, as this must align with the policies being developed. I learnt of the message script the day before the campaign launch, because I dug and eventually found it, it was not willingly presented to me.
— Pieter Du Toit (@PieterDuToit) January 24, 2019
It is for this reason, among others, that I had long suggested that instead of the leader or federal chair fitting me into an already busy diary that I should join them at the meetings which are already standing arrangements for them i.e. NMC and Fedex. Not only would this afford the leader/federal chair an opportunity to engage with policy developments it would enable the head of policy to be in touch with the political discussions in the party which have a bearing on policy. I know of few parties in the world where the politician tasked with policy is not privy to the political thinking and decisions affecting policy. The decision to include me at these meetings was made early but frequently invitations failed to arrive to me, meaning I have in practice attended too few for them to have been of benefit. In fact, I have never had an opportunity lasting more than an hour to present the full range of thinking on policy for the party. Some of the policies developed have been shelved without any discussion whatsoever.
Role of Federal Council: Federal Council enjoys constitutional responsibility for policy in the party. A mandate was received from this body on a specific economic policy framework. This framework was not slipped in via disguise; all the key elements were presented to delegates. Subsequent to the mandate being given, that mandate has either been denied or ignored. That a mandate was given is not my singular version of events, it was understood by the majority of delegates present at the July 2018 meeting. I am not able to stand up in front of federal council in the future and present a different policy to the one I was given a mandate for.
Political support from the leadership: The draft policies developed after a mandate from Federal Council were dismissed as inconsistent with the party by effectively the NMC, with the CEO leading the charge at the Federal Council held in October 2018. Their dissemination to the rest of the party was withheld. At no point did the senior leadership a) recognise that the policy unit was working on a mandate given by Federal Council b) admit that they knew of and approved the policy commissions as the consultation process for the policies.
Instead there was an apparent distancing of the leadership from the policy process with the consistent reference to ‘Gwen’s policy’. Despite not being hired as a consultant to the party there is a pervasive attitude that I am somehow operating ‘outside’ of the party fuelled by an ever-present uncertainty, a wilful uncertainty, of where my mandate originates. Ultimately there are unreconciled (and perhaps irreconcilable) differences both of principle and of how to run a policy process.
Giving the brutally frank assessment of the policy weakness of the DA, I'm surprised #GwenNgwenya remains a member of the party and MP.
How does a policy wonk, continue to represent a party supposedly lacking in policy?
— Melusi Maposa (@MelusiMaposa) January 24, 2019
The work done by the policy unit which has been held hostage include:
-Higher Education policy -Economic Policy -Empowerment policy -Migration policy (beyond securing our borders)
As well as 13 policy commissions at which discussion documents were tabled covering:
Basic Education Higher Education Small Business City-led growth Trade and Investment Housing Land reform ICT Crime and Corruption Empowerment Immigration Transport Energy
These are complete draft documents, and final in the case of the higher education document which either have not been published, disseminated for comment, or approved. The consultation process via the commissions was presented to and approved by the leadership yet was not supported as such at Federal Council. The policy unit sought funding on its own and arranged the commissions without any assistance from the party. Yet publicly, and internally to the party, there is nothing to show of the work that has been carried out. Duplicate processes exist and therefore duplicate policies are produced via FHO. In practice it is the CEO who decides on the policies of the party and not the elected representatives.
Political fallout from article on BEE: 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. 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.
There are many reasons besides those outlined, but these will have to suffice. The bottom line is that I do not believe the DA takes policy seriously; and as a result, there has not been the operational or political resources necessary to result in a policy outcome I can be proud to be associated with.
It is difficult to be clear what I am resigning from, having never received a verbal or written job description. But I do feel a sense of loss. There are many good people, including yourself, fighting many fights every day, but ideas are not a battleground the DA likes to tread. I left a job I enjoyed immensely to move from the night watch into what I thought was the frontline of the battle of ideas. I was wrong about the nature of the battle I’d be engaged in. That I will take responsibility for, and it will be a lesson to me about the consequences of acting in good faith alone.
It is unfortunate to come to the realisation that I have never in any meaningful way been the head of policy; I was given all of the responsibility and none of the basic levers to do the job. In practice all this resignation means is that from today I am no longer available to be the face of policy.
I will continue to offer my opinion (it being not in my nature to withhold it) and to carry out my duties as a member of parliament.
Sincerely, Gwen Ngwenya 18/01/2018
- Gwen Ngwenya is the former policy head of the DA.