With just two weeks left to run, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the national electoral campaign and senses a gap in the way the election has failed to serve as an teachable moment – but how it might still rise to fill that need.
This year’s national election in South Africa is arguably the country’s most important election since the advent of the universal franchise in 1994. While that earlier election was enormously important in confirming the negotiated settlement that had ended the National Party’s whites-only domination, it was a foregone conclusion that the ANC would be the big victor. This time around, while the ANC is almost certainly going to win a sizeable majority yet again (at least nationally), in the absence of a totally unanticipated, magnitude 8 electoral earthquake, the real core of this election is an increasingly vigorous debate over South Africa’s economic future circumstances.
And yet, with the possible exception of a website or two like South Africa Votes 2014 and some often interesting, informative, even challenging writing by columnists like Steve Friedman, Judith February and Eusebius McKaiser, most of the media attention over this election has been in the form of reporting that mostly can be tabbed as either a kind of “horserace” or “insider trading” coverage. Even the various broadcast and open forum debates that have been held have, too often, been opportunities for the rolling out of the usual media-friendly sound bites and snappy retorts – rather than any sustained, substantive analyses of the economic policies the various candidates and parties have been proposing as panaceas to address the country’s current malaise.
But these are not normal, not easy times. The country’s economy continues to lurch forward as employment continues to languish, strikes continue to occur in critical industries, land reform efforts stumble, foreign direct investment continues to slow, domestic investment stalls, the government deficit continues to grow towards unsustainable levels (along with the rising costs of the civil service), economic growth slips further and further into the doldrums – and the country has now, most recently, been forced to yield its pride of place as the continent’s economic engine. And these issues don’t even encompass the economically related questions of the country’s faltering educational system, its overburdened and under-performing health sector, the baleful costs of increasingly systemic, endemic corruption, erratic and often dangerous police performance, along with the nation’s reluctance to deal with the local effects of global changes in the labour sector.
Instead of any hard, unblinking focus on this litany of issues, more usually we are treated to an unceasing stream of reporting on the campaign horserace and that political party insider trading. The reporting keeps telling us who’s up and who’s down; which party is merging or cooperating with (or splitting from) which other group; the eruption of new parties of dissatisfaction like Agang and the EFF (among still others); the emergence of the Kasrils/Madlala-Routledge “Vote No” campaign; and the increasingly likely emergence of fissiparous tendencies within the ANC and its increasingly tattered tri-partite alliance – once the party faces its “day after” on 8 May. But what neither the media nor academia has been doing very much of has been any sustained effort to educate the electorate on the complexity of those crucial issues.
But real voter education must also include a great deal more than simply allowing free rein for political advertisements – even though that modest step almost seemed beyond the capabilities of the SABC, the national public broadcaster. And substantive voter education, of course, is much more than hosting broadcast media, all-party, “debate” free-for-alls.
Of course it may already be too late for any kind of full-on substantive debate between the leaders of the major parties for a series of debates that would have focused, sequentially, on domestic economic and political issues, or foreign policy concerns. These are now-foregone chances of opportunities that would have served to educate would-be voters about the rationality or plausibility of a party’s economic plans and promises. But, instead, what voters have witnessed these past several months have been pep rally-style, screaming and shouting matches between miscellaneous party reps and audience members. Yes, these have been wildly entertaining sometimes, what with those short per-party speeches, but within those there has been very little articulation of the actual choices that will inevitably be faced by whoever ultimately ends up in charge of things.
The challenge, of course, is that real economic issues are usually problematic for candidates. They don’t call economics the dismal science for nothing. Government policy and economics is almost always about painful choices, rather than beautifully delivered, technicolour promises.
Instead, what voters have heard has almost always been that ritualised chanting of: “We can deliver it better because we say we can”; “Get the government off our backs and the unfettered market will provide”; and “Nationalise the banks and the mines and God will provide for us all.” But this is where the media, together with academia, have – for the most part – let us down. Maybe this writer has missed it, but virtually every party has been left off the hook of any tough-minded reality testing of their promises.
The EFF has not been pinned down about the actual benefits of nationalisation to the average citizen and the lack of any serious cost analysis from its promise to double civil servants’ pay and social grants. But, similarly, the DA has been left to wriggle away from their broad assertion that a less restrictive workplace, fewer government regulations and less government interference in industrial development will unleash the awesome power of the marketplace. And, of course, the ANC has rarely been challenged to explain how the next five years will see less corruption, lower levels of self-enrichment, less politicisation of government institutions – and a massive increase in employment.
It would have been a signal contribution – and eminently do-able – to set up thoughtfully guided events where there was a rigorous focus by communication-savvy, economics-smart interlocutors to force candidates or party representatives to explain themselves in depth and with the nuances needed to show they actually understand what they are promising. They would be challenged on how their economic choices would actually be implemented, paid for and managed; what would have to be foregone as a result of any such choices; and how they would deal with the inevitable fallout from these choices.
And beyond a discussion on economics, this same style could be applied to foreign relations, government management, health care and education as well. And it certainly should be. But the key would be a format – the long-running US gold standard of a news discussion program, “Meet the Press,” comes to mind here as a kind of model – where politician guests get caught out for running for cover back to their same old tired sound bites and gauzy platitudes.
But to do this would require a real commitment from broadcasters to dedicate the broadcast time needed to carry out such a programme properly and the willingness of experts to be prepared to be merciless to political favourites, without fear or favour. But isn’t what the national broadcaster is supposed to be doing in the first place? It needs to make sure a chunk of time on all its channels would be dedicated to this exercise; it is more important than the latest soap opera episode, after all.
Maybe it is too late to do it this time around, but, at the minimum, it must become a high priority for the next election in such a way that the rhythm of the actual election campaign is shaped towards participation in such events. They need to become a key part of the overall campaign – just as presidential or prime ministerial debates have become routine in so many other nations overseas.
If the national will is there to accept the idea that an election is a national civic act of education as well as voter choice, it might still be possible to start this between now and 7 May. Or, as the rabbinical teaching has it, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” When, indeed? DM
Photo: EFF supporters. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)
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