Mpumalanga - Promising to “move South Africa forward”, the governing ANC this weekend was the first out of the 2014 election starting blocks by releasing its election manifesto – heavy on policy continuation, like infrastructure delivery and job creation.
Commentators on Sunday said there was little, if anything, new in the manifesto, and described it as “bland”, having “failed to capture the imagination” and as rhetoric without specifics backing it up.
The manifesto includes some concrete deliverable promises like 1 million houses by 2019, 6 million state-driven job opportunities predominately earmarked for youths and the doubling of those on anti-retroviral treatment by 2016.
The ANC tripartite alliance partner, the strife-torn labour federation Cosatu, emerged a key recipient of election campaign undertakings.
These include looking into a national minimum wage, taking “practical steps” so the youth wage subsidy would not displace older workers in favour of young, subsidised employees and also ensuring an end to abusive work practices, including labour brokers.
Cosatu, which traditionally lends the ANC crucial election organising muscle via the workplace, opposed the youth wage subsidy. Its call for a ban on labour brokers was also a point of conflict with the ANC, whose MPs passed a law not to abolish, but to regulate, labour brokers.
The call for a national minimum wage was already made at the March 2013 Cosatu campaigns and collective bargaining conference.
In the continuing strife among the 2.2 million-strong workers’ organisation, Cosatu’s failure last year to successfully push its positions was – according to the argument by several disgruntled affiliates led by metalworkers union Numsa – an indication that Cosatu was turning into an ANC labour desk following the suspension of outspoken Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi last year.
Saturday’s ANC January 8 statement, which sets the tone for the political year, and election manifesto launch, came as the ANC is under pressure. Various polls indicate slipping support, the public outcry continues over the R208 million taxpayer-funded security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla rural homestead and the withdrawal of election support over a lack of radical and transformative policies by Numsa, Cosatu’s largest affiliate with 338 000 members.
Following the booing of Zuma at Nelson Mandela’s memorial last month, the ANC took its manifesto launch to safe waters in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. There, like in KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC faces few, if any, of the paralysing internal tensions as in other provinces like Gauteng and the North West.
There is no doubt the ANC would win this year’s elections nationally and in the majority of provinces, but questions remain over the margins of support and voter turn-out.
Commentators said there was little new or inspiring in the manifesto, and raised eyebrows as Saturday’s rally made it clear that Zuma would be the face of the ANC’s election campaign, regardless of controversies like Nkandla, and “significant” grassroots disgruntlement.
Professor Susan Booysen of the Wits University Graduate School of Public and Development Management, said one would have hoped for a few more ideas in the manifesto. Instead there appeared to be a gap in the ruling party’s policy ideas and implementation.
While the ANC was a strong brand, Booysen said, Zuma’s role in heading the election campaign appears to be “based on loyalty and protectionism of the Zuma ANC”, in which many have tied their own fortunes to that of the president and strategic deployments across the government.
“As long as the centre holds – ill-considered as it may be – as long as the glue of that centre holds, Zuma will remain in power,” she said.
Political analyst Prince Mashele said “there is nothing new” in the manifesto, adding that the message of moving South Africa forward was meaningless for most.
“It is very bland. It can only be appreciated by the beneficiaries of the dividends of democracy – maybe some section of the black middle class that benefited from ANC policies – but to the millions of unemployed it means nothing.”
The ANC was taking a huge gamble in having Zuma front the election campaign, he said. “There is a section of society, no doubt, that is fed up with the scandals.
“They (the ANC) are just daring South Africa,” said Mashele, adding that if the governing party would fall below 60 percent support it would be a huge psychological blow.
Centre for the Study of Democracy director, Professor Steven Friedman, said one had to look at the nuances in the manifesto to find the new, like making the economy more concerned about equity through, for example, a national minimum wage.
“There is still the tendency to talk in very bold terms – ‘we need a radical new direction’ – but if you look at specifics, they are interesting but they are hardly proposals to shake up the country,” he added.
While dismissive of polls indicating slipping ANC support, Friedman nevertheless said there was “significant disenchantment among ANC voters, who are unhappy about leadership” as people felt politicians did not care about them even though they had voted them into power.
The question was how to close the gap. This was raised in the election manifesto, but with just a few months to go before the polls there was little time. The real hard work in closing the gap between people and elected public representatives would come after the elections, Friedman said.
The opposition DA, set to launch its own election manifesto in a few weeks’ time, dismissed ANC undertakings on job creation, basic service delivery and rural development as “empty promises”.
However, an up-beat Zuma told a packed Mbombela Stadium there was much to celebrate given the progress made after the transition to democracy in 1994 and that South Africa was a much better place to live in today.
Citing his own administration’s achievements alongside progress made over the past 20 years – this included democratisation of the state and society, workers’ interests and aspirations, gender equality and security emerging from declining crime rates – Zuma said the ANC would mobilise and unite all South Africans to build a country that belongs to all.
“We committed ourselves to radical transformation, which directly changes the apartheid patterns of economic and social development of this country…” Zuma said, citing the National Development Plan – criticised to various degrees by ANC alliance partners Cosatu and the SACP – as “a living and dynamic document” to eradicate poverty and inequality. “The ANC urges all our people to actively participate in its implementation to move our country forward.”