Full of promises, light on delivery

A striking feature of the 2004 election manifestoes is the similarity between political parties’ promises while they are collectively silent on some major issues.

Some commentators have called the omissions a sign that a vacuum exists for more alternative parties and policies. Others like political commentator Harold Pakendorf said: “At least most parties now agree about the problems in the country and this means progress.”

Most of the manifestoes seemed to base their priorities on the 2003 Afro-barometer survey results, where citizens ranked unemployment (84%), crime (35%), poverty and health as the most urgent issues to be addressed.

Other issues of vital importance, however, such as gender equality, youth concerns and accelerated land reform seem to have dropped off the national agenda.

The HIV/Aids pandemic too gets comparatively little attention in some manifestoes, such as the ANC’s.

Differences between parties are largely reflected by some emotive issues, such as the death penalty and abortion, on which some disagree, while others remain silent.

“It’s a bit like big game viewing, you get the big five or six (election issues) and that’s it,” said political analyst Susan Booysens.

“The differences are really a question of nuances between parties, but that nuance could be quite significant.”

In agreement is Judith February, head of Idasa’s Political Information and Monitoring Service, who added that “in many instances the choice for voters is now between co-operation (with the ANC) or opposition”.

February believes one big unanswered question for nearly all the parties is “how” they will execute and implement their election promises.

She indicated that Idasa was busy with a costing exercise of the major manifestoes as it appears that most parties are making promises regardless of whether they are implementable or affordable.

“The question is therefore whether the parties are accountable”, she said.

“For instance the PAC is promising R500 for every unemployed person. It this affordable? It seems to reflect a level of irresponsibility because desperately poor people in the rural areas may believe them.”

At the same time February is sceptical about whether people really read manifestoes and vote on that basis.

“In the end it comes down to winning hearts and minds”, she said. “It is easier to bring the message through campaigning, posters and radio sound-bites.”

Pakendorf also believes that the manifestoes are of little importance as “people vote because they feel at home in a specific party”.

Most analysts and commentators said that while the manifestoes were similar, they were all either superficial and short on innovative ideas, or they were too idealistic.

“For me the general omission is the lack of depth in which the twin ills of poverty and unemployment are being addressed,” said Booysens.

“I do not see serious innovations in the manifestoes, ones that capture the imagination, except maybe the basic income grant and the expanded public works programme.

“The ANC comes with more of the same type of solutions and no suggestion on how to deal with (President Thabo) Mbeki’s two-storey problem.”

February also emphasised the lack of real solutions.

“The majority of voters want to know how their lives would change”, she said. “What is of concern is that almost nobody explains how they will empower the little person. (Elections) are not about big ideas, but about those who are desperately in need, those people at the bottom of Mbeki’s two-storey house.”

She said this was even more worrying as the government’s own 10-year review suggested that “there was something wrong with the developmental trajectory and therefore that the same old solutions are not necessarily correct”.

If the lack of diversity meant a policy vacuum, the new social movements like the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and the Landless Peoples Movement are standing by to fill that gap, with some threatening to boycott this election.

APF spokesman and academic, Dale McKinley, said the clearest omission from all main manifestoes was that none really mentioned the negative consequences of privatisation, at a time when there was little difference on the issue between the ANC and the DA.

“If they are so concerned about the poorest of the poor, they should acknowledge that privatisation is hurting poor communities and that resistance has become a hot potato”, McKinley said.

“Another issue not mentioned is the suppression of dissent, such as that at the 2002 World Summit, and the narrowing down of the freedom of speech.

“For the social movements this is of particular concern if and when they fundamentally disagree with mainstream policies.” He said there was a need to ensure dissent was not criminalised.

More questions about the omissions were asked by Jubilee SA, which is campaigning for the scrapping of odious debt. Parties were requested to answer a list of questions on whether debt and reparations were still national policy priorities.

Only one party has responded until now. February said these were among the reasons for Idasa’s suggestion that citizens start pushing for a new agenda – which may make the next general elections more issue-based that this one.

Christelle Terreblanche, Cape Times, April 12, 2004

Categories: Africa, Odious Debts, South Africa

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