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.