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Parties aren’t taking big issues seriously in SA’s election campaign

If there is a key campaign issue, it is corruption.
A worker prepares to attach an election poster of Mmusi Maimane's Democratic Alliance to a lamp post in Mitchell's Plain in Cape Town. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Democracy is meant to be a system in which political parties compete to convince the people that they have answers to their most pressing problems. South Africa’s election campaign shows that it does not always operate that way.

The national and provincial elections on May 8, in which the ANC is hoping to end a decline in its support, is loud and hard-fought. But there is little connection between the problems facing South Africans and the issues over which the campaign is being fought.

South Africa’s core problem is a weak economy, which is unable to grow at a rate that preserves people’s living standards. This is a consequence of deeply rooted problems, hold-overs of the country’s minority-ruled past which persist despite 25 years of democracy.

One such hold-over is the exclusion of millions of people from the economy’s benefits. Many South Africans don’t earn a wage or salary because the formal job market is closed to them. Neither government policy nor business practice have found ways to ensure that they can earn a living and contribute to the economy even if they have no formal job. This reduces both the talent available in the mainstream economy and the markets into which businesses can sell their products.

Another is the survival of the racial patterns of the past, albeit in new forms. This ensures a lack of trust between (largely black) government and (largely white) business which makes cooperation to address economic problems difficult.

Although a growing black middle class has emerged, its members are probably the angriest people in the country because they believe their abilities and qualifications are not recognised by the white business people and professionals who, in their view, remain in charge.

Besides damaging the economy, this ensures middle-class support for demands such as land expropriation without compensation. The ensuing disputes damage confidence and make growth much less likely.

About symptoms, not causes

If life worked in the ways textbooks say it does, these issues would be at the centre of the election campaign. We would expect parties to be competing to show that they have the best solutions to slow growth, the exclusion of millions from the economy, and racial tension.

They are doing no such thing. To the extent that the campaign is about anything other than name-calling, it is about symptoms, not causes.

If there is a key campaign issue, it is corruption. The ANC is trying to convince voters that its new leadership is committed to rooting out misuses of public funds and trust while the opposition insists that it has not mended its ways.

Corruption is obviously a huge problem. But there are two problems with the way it is being treated in the campaign. First, the parties are not trying to sell voters concrete plans to root out corruption. Rather, the campaign assumes that corruption will disappear miraculously if some politicians are replaced by others.

The governing party says its leadership will do the trick; the opposition, that only their leaders will. But the problem did not end when the ANC leadership changed, and it persists in cities the opposition won in 2016. It is deep-rooted whoever governs and will continue until concrete plans to tackle it are implemented. None of the parties have any plans.

Second, corruption is a symptom of the economic problem.

If ambitious people cannot get into the middle class because the doors to the formal economy’s benefits are closed to them, they will use politics to move upwards, and won’t necessarily play fair because the stakes are so high.

If poor people cannot get a wage or salary they will, if they can, attach themselves to politicians and support whoever gives them what they need to get on.

If the imagination of the political class does not stretch further than claiming repeatedly that they are clean, their claims to good faith will be undermined by continued sleaze below the surface.

Immigration, and platitudes

A more sinister feature of the campaign is that parties are competing to show that they are tough on immigration.

This makes economic problems harder to solve – the country has a skills shortage and keeping out people with abilities and qualifications has to harm the economy: finance minister Tito Mboweni said as much in his February budget speech.

Again this is a response to symptoms, not causes: while hostility to foreigners is a world-wide trend, it takes on its most virulent form when economies cannot meet people’s needs.

The racial issue is, in effect, ignored – except where politicians or parties see mileage in keeping alive the racial stereotypes that cause the problem in the first place. How to encourage South Africans to talk seriously, let alone bargain, across the divide is a non-issue for all the parties.

For the rest, the campaign is about platitudes.

All the parties are in favour of creating millions of jobs but no-one knows how.

And no-one addresses the reality that the jobs they claim they will create were extinguished years ago and the crisis will persist until they start talking about how to include in the economy the hundreds of thousands who won’t have formal jobs.

They all support better government services and they all believe their leaders are better than anyone else’s. None of them seem able to move out of their rut to recognise what is ailing the country, let alone to suggest ways of solving problems.

Limitations of party politics

The textbook view would suggest that this means the country is incapable of addressing its problems. It does not. It simply means that party politics cannot do this. Progress will depend on whether the key interests in the economy and society are capable of making deals that will address the problems. Whether or not this happens does not depend on what parties say on the hustings.

But the election is important. It will decide whether politicians who are open to that deal-making are elected. But as long as the real issues are absent from the campaign, citizens will be given no say in how these issues are tackled. In a democracy, discussions on how to solve problems should happen in public and parties should implement solutions that voters have chosen. South Africa is still far away from that possibility.The Conversation

Steven Friedman is professor of political studies at the University of Johannesburg.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. The original can be read here.



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It seems that professors of political studies are modern day fortune tellers – projecting their own agenda into the reading of tea leaves.

None of this was backed up by facts and contains numerous inferences. Only factually correct part is that there is corruption in government.

This should not be even published as it tries to shift blame on opinionated subjects.

This article is pretty accurate, in terms of the mind set of the average anc voter.

Is seems that the more out of touch with reality and the more they blame everyone else except themselves the more likely they will be voted for.

Vote for EWC and get 2 goats.
See how easy I just solved the housing, food and job crisis.

Steven, a really nice article and super insights.

We’re a real microcosm of the world where collectively we are all out of answers. Not just our politicians, but everyone.

But our politicians are particularly inept, probably because the average south African voter is so unsophisticated. So the biggest gain in votes looks like the EFF who, by their manifesto are easily the biggest liars of them all.

Just as the notion that EWC will save us is another huge lie – nearly as big as the ANC will fight corruption, or Cyril’s poster that says…come grow the country with me.

The funniest one though must be that South Africa is well poised to take advantage of the 4th industrial revolution. This is in a country that ranks stone last in maths and science whose varsity students are calling for decolonised education.

“The fact that so many successful politicians are such shameless liars is not only a reflection on them, it is also a reflection on us. When the people want the impossible, only liars can satisfy.” ― Thomas Sowell

Skills shortage my foot! 4th industrial revolution is still coming in SA but experienced workers are being retrenched and the multinationals are employing their own or taking jobs oversea. South African government needs to check closely the contracts that SA companies give to the so called companies.

If we do indeed have the large pool of skilled workers capable of handling the “4th industrial revolution”, why do we need multinationals to produce anything? If we are so skilled, just get on with the job. Our politicians are flush with taxpayers’ money they have filched. Get them to set up another VBS in exchange for your vote and there is your capital. Also don’t forget the bottomless pit of pension monies in the PIC. Done!

If you see a heading “ANC getting tough on corruption”, this is merely an April fools joke !

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Winston Churchill

If we were any smarter, we would have outsourced government to the capable. And since that will never happen, just sit back and enjoy the flying circus.

‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

It would be very puzzling if Churchill actually uttered the words you attribute to him, considering that he spent most of his latter life fighting against authoritarianism, first Nazi Germany and aftererwards communism.

Authoritive Churchill scholar Richard Langworth dismisses the quote you attribute to Churchill.

Yup quite likely it is not real as I read it online sometime ago. Anyway, has a nice ring to it even if it wasn’t Winston.

I stopped reading at “If ambitious people cannot get into the middle class because the doors to the formal economy’s benefits are closed to them, they will use politics to move upwards, and won’t necessarily play fair because the stakes are so high”

Really? Is this an April fool’s joke? No my Dear Professor – these “ambitious people” only ambition is to get money for nothing without putting any effort. No creativity, nor any effort to partake meaningful in the economy. They feel nothing for the economically marginalized knowing full well that there actions will further deprive those in need from basic services and being uplifted because scare resources are diverted from where it is most needed to line their pockets and afford them a standard of living at the expense of those that are not of the “political class”

It is beyond belief that you are able to conjure up this nonsense

I agree with your sentiments to a degree. Friedman has a massive chip on his shoulder. But I also think we need to acknowledged that it is much harder for a poor kid to work himself up into the middle class than it is for a middle class kid to stay there. Maybe more importantly it is also harder for poor SA kids to work themselves up into the middle class than it is in many otehr countries – developed and developing.

Where Friedman and his ilk gets it wrong is always making it out to be a giant conspiracy by whites in general or Stellenbosch Afrikaners in particular to keep all balck people out of the economy. This is patent rubbish. That there are structurual imbalances is true – simple things like the benefits of having a parent who went to University to help you with the tiresome application process or a family member that can get you an interview for an internship. Yes those are clear benefits but by always painting white people as evil Friedman and the rest of the progressive left just hardens attitudes to some valid concerns that they raise

Professor, couldn’t agree with you more…
They are missing the point – the crisis facing the hungry unemployed and homeless – Present the solution and you get votes
10 million UNEMPLOYED
HOW to get SA working – Empowering PEOPLE to help themselves
Fight poverty, unemployment and crime through housing

Be nice if they could also be imbued with the common sense not to bring more souls into their miserable world of poverty and hunger. A child unfortunately does not have a choice in the process of procreation. If they did I guarantee the poor would be permanently childless.

None of the political parties (from what I can gather) has mentioned the taxi industry and what they intend to do to transform it. So I guess it is fine for unregulated, reckless taxi thugs, with no standards or respect for road laws, to transport our (supposedly) valuable citizens to work and back. Interesting! Let the killing fields continue but please vote for us (before your number is up in a taxi).

Bottom line they are terrified of most of the criminals both in government and private sector. They mostly only capable of bullying minor transgressors such as defaulting traffic offenders or folk who have not paid their tax arrears or TV licences.

As soon as I read this” This is a consequence of deeply rooted problems, hold-overs of the country’s minority-ruled past which persist despite 25 years of democracy.” I lost all interest, just another ANC apologist regurgitating the party line. Yawn….

I don’t think Friedman has had an original thought in his life.

I shudder to think how many students have been taught by this man.

To be fair to SA’s African people, they should be compared to their peer group in surrounding countries, and their progress measured against the populations of, say, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

SA’s African people are not worse of than their peers in surrounding countries, who are at a similar stage of development, when measured on income, housing, education, the amount and size of businesses started, etc.

By comparing blacks to whites here, the ANC increases black insecurity and makes the whites, who are already paying high taxes, more disgruntled.

Immigration is not about skills (only at the high end), it is about protecting SA’s 8 million unemployed. You first feed your own family, then others.

Further, Prof Friedman knows full well that the ANC is not going to move against corruption before the election. We will have to see if they act after the election, as so many of them (top six as well) are corrupt.

End of comments.




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