Time for empty election promises is over
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CAPE TOWN - As candidates launch their election manifestos, we expect them to conduct election campaigns that match up to our expectations and priorities.
In 2013, the government adopted the National Development Plan (NDP), a development vision to put the economy on a new growth strategy. The NDP sets out an integrated strategy for accelerating growth, eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2033.
The NDP was designed to build on the successes of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which was adopted by South Africa at the dawn of democracy to address the basic needs of the people to create an equal society and has always featured in every election manifesto of major political parties.
The RDP objectives included providing all citizens with water, electricity, sanitation, jobs, housing, education, social protection, quality health care, clean environment, public transport as well as adequate nutrition. These goals also fall under the mandate of local government.
Since 2013, South Africans have by and large adopted an election mode and a government accountability system based on the “realisation of the NDP vision by 2033” as its de facto developmental goals, but two fatal flaws hide in plain sight within those 37 characters. One is “realisation of the NDP vision.” The other is “by 2033”.
These two flaws provide cover for big oil, trickle down energy policy and legislation implementation, and corrupt politicians who wish to preserve the status quo in the environmentally unfriendly energy sources we use. Together they comprise a deadly prescription for inaction and catastrophically high levels of irreversible climate and environmental degradation, as well as the widening inequality gap in our society facing due to destruction of sustainable livelihoods.
First, consider “by 2033”. This deadline feels comfortably far away, encouraging further climate and economic transformation procrastination. Who feels urgency over a deadline in 2033 when making election promises and enjoying the benefits of occupying political office without having to account for inaction? This is convenient for the country’s elected leaders, who typically have term limits of five years, less so for anyone who needs a liveable planet and economically liberated citizens.
That is why we expect leaders who will be elected this time to contribute differently and meaningfully through tangible election promises in the realisation of the constitutionally-defined objects of local government which are: to provide democratic and accountable government for local communities; to ensure the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner; to promote social and economic development; to promote a safe and healthy environment and to encourage the involvement of communities and community organisations in the matters of local government.
Though the election manifestos detail remains undeclared, we expect that this time they will not shy away from issues such as climate change and commitments to a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy so as to enable us to better enjoy our rights to, among other things, electricity, water, food, and a clean environment.
These are important, considering our politician’s unashamed appetite for issuing licences for the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas, disregarding the need to act on climate change and to protect the livelihoods of communities dependent on fragile ecosystems threatened by environmental degradation.
This appetite, be it in the form of government’s Operation Phakisa to exploit offshore oil and gas or the move to introduce 20-year-long contracts for Karpowerships to generate electricity in the ports of Saldanha, Ngqura and Richards Bay, raises the need for communities to ensure that measures addressing climate and nature receive the highest priority for the election candidates, weeks before South Africa participates in the UN climate conference Cop26 in Glasgow in November.
One of the goals that must be explicit is the upward revision of electricity kilowatts subsidy across municipalities to deal with the plight of ordinary people who are faced with power disconnections and huge municipal services debt. The time has come to account for the failure to do this over many years in which the National Energy Regulator of South Africa has approved multiple tariff increases, without corresponding adjustments to meet the needs of households.
They must spell out how they will deal with izinyoka-nyoka that are actively connecting poor households to the electricity grid to bypass payments, mainly because of unemployment or the unpredictability and irregularity of household income. This is urgent to change the annual influx in provincial hospitals across the country of children with skin burns as a result of exposure to open fires and other dangerous unsafe cooking methods.
Concrete plans on a revised electricity subsidy must offer immediate relief to the struggling households to make it possible to run income-generation activities at home, so as to change the situation where ordinary families in RDP houses cannot even simultaneously connect a kettle, a stove and an iron due to low wattage.
Another goal that must be explained is how politicians plan to implement the internationally recognised norms and standards of 50 kilolitres of free water per household, improve access by reducing distance to water sources, ensure affordable prices through implementing a billing system that is not driven by making profit, provide subsidies to households, terminate arbitrary cut-offs in poor households because of their inability to pay for water, and ensure the portability of water supply.
These must be accompanied by regular maintenance of infrastructure, the recovery and recycling of waste water in the face of water shortages. Water cut-offs and drip systems have dire consequences for the health and quality of life of the majority people, leaving poor communities vulnerable and undermining the fundamental concept of water as a human right.
Lastly, with the Stats SA’s General Household Survey telling us over 20% of South Africans are going to bed hungry, food security in this election can't be understood in isolation from other developmental questions such as social protection, sources of income, rural and urban development, changing household structures, health, access to land, water and inputs, retail markets, or education and nutritional knowledge.
For example, there is policy space in our local government to advocate for active municipal intervention to ensure household food security; including school nutrition programmes, baby formula supplies in clinics, food banks, municipal commonages, food gardens, local markets, market garden subsidies and relief food parcels.
In the absence of details, we risk being left sensing election promises will be vaguer and less ambitious than those made in the previous elections and by-elections. Omitting references to specific commitments to achieve basic norms and standards will lower performance expectations. With specificity comes more measurability, and with it more accountability every year in the next five years in office.
* Nyembezi is a human rights activist and policy analyst