Constitutional Hill

Elections are coming: Can we have some substance please

It may be months before the president formally announces the date for the national and provincial elections, which must be held by July 2014, but the election already seems to be in full swing. It would enhance the quality of our democracy if leaders of political parties were to spend more time talking about their plans for improving the lives of voters and less about what is wrong with their opponents – but only the most optimistic among us will believe that this will come to pass.

Few democrats will disagree with President Jacob Zuma, who is reported to have told supporters on Friday:

Allow a person to speak azibhedele nje (to talk nonsense). If you don’t do that, you create a situation for someone to feel important. Leave them. The essence of democracy is that people are free to speak. We must be tolerant even when we don’t agree with what they say.

The report in the Sowetan suggests that President Zuma was responding to an incident last week when the crowd booed DA leader Helen Zille and prevented her from speaking at the launch of the Saldanha Bay Industrial Development Zone.

It is always laudable when a politician stands up for what is right and exhorts his or her followers to be tolerant of the views of those with whom they disagree. It is even more laudable when that politician is brave enough to admit that many politicians speak a lot of nonsense.

It is for this very reason that I am not a great fan of election campaigns.

Unless you make a determined effort to avoid all forms of media during an election campaign, you will be swamped with carefully choreographed images of politicians pretending to be amazing and inspirational men and women who care – no, I mean, really care – about “dirty” people they have never met and never intend to rub shoulders with.

You will be unable to avoid the faces of smiling politicians, appropriately looking down on the rest of us from lampposts and huge billboards. Various politicians will repeatedly tell you that they are not campaigning out of personal ambition, but out of humility and a desire to serve the masses of our people (preferably – but that will not be discussed – from the back of a luxury sedan in a blue light cavalcade).

You will be exposed to the spectacle of politicians running around saying things that are demonstrably false and making promises they cannot keep. “We will scrap e-tolls!” “We will stop corruption!” “We will create millions of jobs!”

And you will definitely hear them attacking their opponents as corrupt, uncaring, racist, callous, stupid, out of touch, culturally insensitive or privileged – although few will mention the sexism or homophobia of their competitors, except to endorse it directly or by implication.

Politicians will also tell you that all their problems (and the bad press their party might be getting) are caused by dark conspiracies, by agent provocateurs, by “refugees” from another province, by ungrateful entitled leeches on the state, by those whose dirty votes they do not need or by people who will never be satisfied – even when you build them the best open toilet that your budget can buy.

It’s enough to make you cynical and to strengthen your urge to turn away from politics – or to go on a narcissistic, Russell Brand-style rant about the futility of voting in elections at all.

But, in my humble opinion, this would be a mistake.

The tirade in the preceding paragraphs was great fun to pen. Sometimes it is cathartic to give yourself over to your own cynicism and to soothe yourself with the idea that this whole democracy thing has nothing to do with you, that it is somebody else’s problem.

But after writing it all down, I had to pause for a moment to reflect on my own motives. Is it not a bit too easy to depict most politicians as venal and self-serving creatures and to present politics as an empty charade? Does this not allow you to distance yourself from the political process, from democracy itself, in order to feel good about yourself?

I am not like that. I am better.

This is not to say that much of what passes for political debate during an election campaign in South Africa (as in most democracies) can feel intellectually sterile, devoid of substance and phony.

But their consultants and pollsters must surely be telling political parties (those parties who can afford such things) that voters can be swayed by vague generalities about a “better life for all”, an “open opportunity society” or “economic freedom in our lifetime”.

Which means that us voters get the political parties and election campaigns that we deserve. We demand little from our politicians and they reward us handsomely for our lowered expectations by giving us little in return. Most of us are not interested in the policy solution contained in party manifestoes. How many of us are going to read the policy positions of the various political parties before we decide which party to cast our vote for?

Many vote for the party of their choice for emotional reasons or because of their racial identity – that is why the Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress each have a core constituency that will vote for it no matter who their leaders are, what new policies they propose, and what practical steps they say they will take to implement those policies.

This will only change if voters themselves demand more from political parties and from the journalists who cover the election campaign. I am something of a political junkie, but I am relatively uninformed about the policy prescriptions (and the practical plans for implementing those policies) of the various political parties.

This is partly my fault – at some point I started skipping passages in the National Development Plan because I had other things to do – but it is also partly the fault of the media, who almost never dare to overestimate the intelligence of the consumers of their products.

Most political reporting consists of claims and counter-claims and insults and counter-insults of politicians about opponents and have very little to do with the substantive political issues. But these substantive policy ideas – and practical proposals to implement them – will determine whether a government will improve the lives of ordinary people or will take us down a rabbit hole.

Surely it would be nice if a journalist would think to ask Mmusi Maimane how the DA would stop e-tolls if they win the Gauteng election, given the fact that e-tolls are levied in terms of national legislation over which the Gauteng province has no jurisdiction?

It would also be great if a journalist were to ask President Jacob Zuma what the first ten practical steps are that his government will take to implement various aspects of the National Development Plan.

It would be fantastic to hear a journalist ask the leaders of political parties about their attitudes towards large-scale evictions of poor people living in informal settlements. Do political parties respect section 26 of the Constitution and the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act or are they anti-constitutional and lawless, eager to advance the interests of the rich and well-connected property owners by unlawfully evicting people without a requisite court order?

This is probably never going to happen. Instead we will probably continue to be fed a diet of insults and gaffes, interspersed with pretty choreographed pictures of smiling politicians posing next to voters used as political props to convey a message dreamt up by a consultant or election campaign strategist.

But maybe – and this is a huge maybe – something will change if enough of us demand more from our politicians and from the media who inform us about elections.