What should we be discussing as we head to the polls?

The upcoming 2009 elections are exciting – uncertainty is in the air and people aren’t quite sure what to expect.  So we ask – what should these elections be about? What are the questions and concerns that South Africans should be discussing as they head to the polls on 22 April?

This brief looks at the following issues in detail: an overview of political issues in South Africa; the effect of the global crisis; the prevalence of inequality; unemployment and job creation; poverty alleviation; service delivery; education and public health.

Let’s take a look at the bigger picture of the last few months.  Internal ANC battles saw Thabo Mbeki being unseated and the installation of Kgalema Motlanthe as South Africa’s new President. The resignation and re-instatement of the finance minister caused markets to react. And the corruption trial of the ANC president Jacob Zuma continues to meander through the judicial system, as the judiciary finds itself at odds with ANC leadership. At the same time, South Africans are faced with declining life expectancy rates, sobering HIV/AIDS rates and a global economic contraction that continues to threaten further job losses.

Yet all is not doom and gloom. Poverty is on the decline. Service delivery has improved and between 2001 and 2007 2.1 million jobs were created (source: Stats SA). The era of HIV/AIDS denialism is over, with the introduction of a new and resourceful Health Minister. Civil society is active and speaks loudly. A record number of South Africans – 23,174,279 – have registered to vote in the upcoming elections and almost 6.4 million are young people (within the ages of 18-29) – and over 50% of all registered voters, 12.7 million are women. 

South Africans hold strong views on political freedoms and the Afrobarometer survey conducted on political views in 2008 revealed that 80% of South Africans believe that the news media should be free, 72% feel that people should be free to join any organisation and 62% that the president should be bound by the courts.

A total of 59% said that citizens should actively question the actions of leaders and 78% said that people should be able to speak their mind.

However, overall trust in political institutions and state institutions was on the decline between 2006 and 2008. Fear of political intimidation logged in at 50% for violence related to party competition, and 44% felt they needed to be cautious when discussing politics.

On the pressing issues affecting South Africans, employment topped the list at 69% with crime at 32% and poverty at 24%. Perceptions of corruption are at 16% (more than doubled from 6% in 1998) and education has decreased as priority (in 1994, 34% considered this a priority, as opposed to only 12% in 2008).

Only 36% of South Africans believe that the country is headed in the right direction, a drop from 73% in 2004.

Government policy fared well in the distribution of welfare, addressing educational needs and water & sanitation provision, but declined on keeping prices down, reducing crime, job creation and fighting corruption.

On issues of social cohesion, in 2007 fewer South Africans believed that race relations were improving than in 2001. However, national identity (as opposed to a racial identity) where people identify as South African, remains strong and stable.

South Africa’s institutions of democracy are of critical importance and are dealt with in an upcoming brief. The tumultuous political terrain of the past few years has tested these institutions. Concerns about Parliament specifically include: lack of independence from the executive; a proportional representative system which makes MPs beholden to their parties rather than their constituencies; the impression that Parliament has become a rubber stamp for the ANC over issues such as disbanding the Scorpions, failing to launch a commission of enquiry into the arms deal, attempting to control appointments to the SABC board, and the Travelgate cover up. The Eskom electricity crisis in 2008 also highlighted weaknesses in the ability of Parliament to hold government to account for its shortcomings. In general, public trust in both parliament and government has declined. According to a recent HSRC survey, “ the data from late 2005 show a worrisome reversal in trust in virtually all major public institutions, particularly local government and Parliament, but also the other two tiers of government” . A future brief will also focus on institutions such as the NPA, the Media, the IEC, the Judiciary and the Constitution.  Watch this space for more.

See the full brief on the Idasa website here.

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