Economy still no vote swinger

Samuel Wurzelbacher became a symbol of the average American voter who wanted to know how politicians’ policies would affect his life and business. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Samuel Wurzelbacher became a symbol of the average American voter who wanted to know how politicians’ policies would affect his life and business. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

ANALYSIS

"Joe the Plumber" made headlines during the 2008 elections in the United States when he challenged President Barack Obama publicly on tax policy and how it would affect a small plumbing business Joe wanted to buy. Joe, an active conservative whose full name is Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, was in 2008 the quintessential example of the average voter questioning a politician on economic policy and how it would affect his life.

As our own elections loom, analysts point out that the economy – and the economic plans espoused by various political parties – aren't likely to feature much in voters' decision-making this time around. But this is changing as inequality and the skewed distribution of wealth become increasingly important public issues.

Political analyst Nic Borain says identity politics and the ruling party's association with the struggle against apartheid and its iconic heroes – particularly Nelson Mandela – are still key to people's votes. That said, the public's concern with the quality of governance and a "sense of fairness of the economy" suggested a greater maturity of our democracy.

The apparent traction gained by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) shows that, 20 years into democracy, huge wealth disparities remain. "Their [the EFF's] promise to right this regardless of whose toes they step on [could] likely have an impact on vote distribution."

But the electorate is likely to give little consideration to economic policy in election manifestos, because many of these policy points remain "very abstract", says Borain.

Still, debate over economic direction has contributed to the upheaval in the ANC's alliance partner, trade union federation Cosatu, and its public battle with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

The ANC was no longer able to balance a range of interests including those of international investors and the business community, while meeting the immediate demands of its constituency, says Borain. Numsa's looming split from Cosatu and the formation of the EFF are "natural spinning off at the edges" from the ANC's political centre.

Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), says South Africa has not yet reached political "normalisation", in which people vote on policy issues as opposed to out of loyalty or for personalities. "But," he says, "the 2014 elections will begin this process and with every election this will change a little more."

Earlier this week, Cilliers presented the ISS's scenario-planning exercise on South Africa's possible futures by 2030. The most positive scenario, "Mandela Magic", sees our economy swell to more than R8-trillion and the number of people living on R14 a day fall to below 4.5-million from seven million now. One key element to achieving this scenario is a commitment to the implementation of the National Development Plan (NDP). In the ISS's gloomiest forecast, the ANC ­jettisons the NDP in favour of short-term populist policy.

The ANC did tout the NDP in its election manifesto, alongside its other economic and industrial development plans, such as the New Growth Path. And President Jacob Zuma said in his recent State of the Nation address that the state was working on a "medium-term strategic framework" to amalgamate key policy targets from theses other plans into the first five-year building block of the NDP. But, says Nomura analyst Peter Attard Montalto, there was little detail on how these "tangential economic visions … can be truly reconciled".

According to Kevin Lings, chief economist at Stanlib, the electorate is more aware of debates on the economy than in the past, particularly when compared with 1994, when the elections were clearly about changing the political order. Yet when voters experience real change in their living or working conditions, economic issues may have more resonance. These instances are likely to be localised, linked to questions of service delivery, and often mixed with issues such as corruption and government administration.

Certain policy points do get attention, said Lings, such as the ANC's call for a national minimum wage, but these are seen in terms of how they affect people's lives. Voters have not really interrogated broad macroeconomic policy positions, such as how to approach the currency, for instance, he said.

This is because the linkages between these policies and their impact on people's daily lives are often not well understood.

Although the electorate recognises the empty promises being made by political parties, said Lings, we are "still not asking detailed questions" about party policies, requesting timelines and implementation plans or holding politicians to account when they do not deliver.

Lynley Donnelly writes about business for the Mail & Guardian

 

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