The election season is finally drawing to a close after what seems to have been an eternity of campaigns, promises and political partisanship. Of course, it would not be South Africa if service delivery protests were not a feature of the political discourse. Anybody who has watched the news in recent weeks would have noticed the spike in service delivery protests around the country. Service delivery protests remain the most practical way of shedding light on community grievances and a powerful means of commanding the attention of politicians in search of a governing mandate. Protest action in Alexandra in early April 2019 saw President Ramaphosa make a special appearance to account for the ruling party’s role in the continuing squalor characteristic of the locality, 25 years into democracy. Being the wily politician he is, President Ramaphosa used the moment deftly to rubbish the DA run City of Johannesburg and make fresh promises about what the ANC would do for the township after it receives a new mandate in the upcoming elections. Among the promises made is an eye popping build of 1 million houses in Alexandra over the next five years. Ploy or reality? Let’s see.
In 2018, the Department of Human Settlements, issued a report stating that the government had built 3.3 million houses between the year 1994 and 2018. The report lamented a backlog of 2.1 million units. So, how on earth does President Ramaphosa intend to build a third of total houses built in 25 years in just five years? Which brings us to the point of this piece.
Service delivery grieviences are partly a result of the many “pie-in-the-sky” promises that political parties make to communities during the election season. South Africans are continually promised first-class services tailored to their expectations at no charge. Unfortunately, this is proving to be unsustainable. The reality is that the free life that political parties promised to South Africans is not free at all. Housing, education, healthcare and basic service delivery are investments; all investments cost money, which has to be obtained from somewhere. The fact that they are free does not mean that the cost falls away. It merely means that the services are paid for from the little resources the government can acquire.
It is not only the ANC which is guilty of making empty promises to South Africans. All political parties make popular election promises to South African with no plan of keeping such. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for instance, promised in their manifesto to double social grants and old age pensions, should they be elected into government. It has also promised that its government will abolish fees for higher education, cancel all student debt, provide students with free accommodation, two free meals a day, free public transport and a free laptop while tripling the amount of research funding available to universities. And it has guaranteed that it will absorb all unemployed graduates and place them into areas relevant to their qualifications. All of which sounds good of course. Except, who pays for it? Given the country’s dire economic condition, how does the EFF intend to ensure the sustainable, equitable provision of all these promises to support a lasting democracy?
The Democratic Alliance (DA), on the other hand, promised South African a job in every household. So far, the party has not said how this will be kept exactly. The promise also neglects the reality that many factors shape the nature of unemployment. These include the growing challenges of industries becoming more capital-intensive and less labour-intensive; the growing mismatch between skills distribution and skills demand in the economy, and the growing youth and graduate unemployment rate. Therefore, how does the policy promise “a job in every household” ensure a sustainable solution to the issue of unemployment and address widespread poverty and inequality?
An obvious and sad reality for most South Africans is that political parties make ambitious promises to bait the electorate. This is the cycle election after election and explains why many of the unrealistic promises made during election seasons have not been fulfilled and do not look to be fulfilled anytime soon. It has also become apparent that protest actions are increasingly resulting in more promises to appeal to voters and virtually no action from the government. While there is no perfect political party, many young South Africans who have experienced poverty, inequality and unemployment want to vote for a political party that can be trusted to fulfil its promises. It remains to be seen if communities will use other means available to them to hold parties accountable and faithful to their electoral promises.