Election promises of jobs and growth solve nothing
Growing the economy and creating jobs are at the centre of this year's general election, reflecting South Africa's struggle to create jobs – or even save existing ones.
The promises are in every party's election manifesto. But will any of them be able to deliver on these promises? No, say economists. It's all a matter of fine-sounding ambitions, meant to secure your vote on May 7.
Take the ANC's pledge to promote local procurement by directing the state progressively to buy at least 75% of its goods and services from South African producers and to support small enterprises and co-operatives.
Political economist Ralph Mathekga says the ANC has decided to use the state to rejuvenate the economy on the realisation that the private sector is not, at this point, able to do the job. An opportunity exists for the government to step in in the form of public expenditure and the creation of incentives for entrepreneurship.
On the surface, it is a good idea, but there is a lingering question about the state's capacity to implement these projects, Mathekga says.
Moreover, he says, the ANC's promised interventions appear to be short-term initiatives, with no potential to have a significant impact on unemployment in the long term.
"In a sense, the ANC manifesto seems to be an attempt by the party to buy time and manage the unemployment and social discontent, instead of being a long-term solution. The party is running out of ideas."
Ian Cruickshanks, the chief economist at the South African Institute of Race Relations, thinks that it would be unwise to insist on local procurement when some products are cheaper imported.
As for the ANC's plan to consolidate the public works programme with a view to creating six million "work opportunities" by 2019, according to Cruickshanks: "We're going to end up having fewer jobs."
The electoral newcomer this year, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have "the most ambitious and dishonest manifesto", Mathekga says. Among other key promises, the EFF would set a minimum wage of R4 500 across the board for all full-time workers, ensure that mineworkers are paid their dream R12 500 a month, and that farm workers would take home a salary of R5 000.
"The party knows that it will not be brought to account for its promises, knowing that it will not secure sufficient majority to implement policy," says Mathekga. "The EFF will have to adjust its manifesto as the party gains years in opposition. As it stands, the manifesto is meant only to challenge the status quo."
Even if the EFF manages to win the elections and govern the country, says Mathekga: "I doubt EFF leaders have the necessary discipline and commitment to implement those ideas."
Cruickshanks, on the other hand, predicts disaster should the EFF ever get to implement its manifesto.
Unlike other parties, "at least they have some figures", he says. But the party's populist promises would leave South Africa bankrupt, because "Julius wants to spend three times more than what the country spends [at present]. We would be like Zimbabwe. I'd say, pack your bags and move out."
The jobs promises of the Democratic Alliance (DA) are a "mere rhetorical retort" to ANC policies, says Mathekga. Helen Zille's party has told voters it would create six million "real and permanent jobs" in addition to seven million expanded public works job opportunities that would serve as "a step up the jobs ladder".
The DA has also promised to create one million internships for young jobseekers, an encouraging plan considering that even qualified graduates cannot secure employment because they lack experience.
But "what the DA is talking about are technical measures that might need to be undertaken to make things work. The party does not believe that the system has failed; rather, it positions itself as the best implementer of what is already there," Mathekga says. "It does not address the fundamental question of whether our economy and our education system are such that ‘real jobs' can be harnessed."
Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement (UDM) has proposed, among other things, a national economic indaba – along the lines of the Codesa negotiations in the early 1990s – to examine the country's ailing economy. This indaba would also discuss economic policy to help to eradicate poverty, reduce unemployment and lessen inequality.
Enough talk, says Cruickshanks, it's time for action.
Under a UDM government, South Africa would set an annual economic growth target of 7%.
That's a pipe dream, says Mathekga. "It has proved impossible in the past few years. The idea of an economic Codesa also appears to be feeble. South Africa's economic challenges are well known and its so-called growth constraints have been outlined at length. Nothing would be revealed, or resolved, by a Codesa."
A growth target of 7% could have been met years ago, says Cruickshanks, but the opportunities were missed. "In the boom years, we started at 2% and we got to a maximum growth of 6%. That was when the world was booming. If we got to 4% now, we'd be lucky. Last year, the growth rate was 1.7%, and we are expecting 2.7% this year.
"The world is not in a happy state right now, and neither is South Africa. We've got labour problems, capital problems, and when we set targets, we must be realistic," Cruickshanks says.
He also frowns on the UDM's proposal to use a manageable budget deficit and government debt to create jobs and stimulate the economy, saying that such spending would put the country in massive debt.
If the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)were to run South Africa, it says, it would create tax incentives and low-tax investment zones in rural areas.
Cruickshanks disagrees with this vision: "The homelands were funded by the government and given huge tax breaks. But the minute the government took the money away, they couldn't function. Forget it – it's been tried, and it failed."
Mathekga says most political parties seem not to have done their homework. "It shows that South African politics is not yet at the level where substance matters. The manifestos are full of jobs rhetoric and no feasible solutions."
Mmanaledi Mataboge is a political reporter for the Mail & Guardian.