What the voters want

26th April 2024 By: Martin Zhuwakinyu - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

As election day draws ever closer, political parties are pulling out all the stops in their quest to win the hearts and minds of South African voters. All manner of promises are being made – from a nigh-immediate end to loadshedding to the creation of millions of jobs in no time, free education for all, improved safety and security, and lots more.

The political parties are spot-on. These issues top the lists of voter concerns in South Africa and other democracies worldwide, if the results of a study conducted by the US-based Pew Research Center are anything to go by. The study, the results of which were published on March 24, canvassed the opinions of 30 000 respondents in Mzansi and 23 other countries on what would make democracy in their nations work better.

An overwhelming majority highlighted problems with their country’s economy, the need for jobs, a desire for improved safety and security, and problems with roads, electricity and healthcare. In other words, these are precursors to democracy – those things that are needed for democracy to function at all.

What’s more, people want an improvement in their government by way of having better-calibre politicians or enforcing existing rights more robustly.

A sizeable number of respondents expressed the view that the system in their nation needs to be reformed through changes to the electoral process, the balance of power between institutions, and the structure of courts.

While the above sentiments are generic, the Pew research report also captures, verbatim, several responses from each of the participating countries. Below are some of the quotes from South African respondents:

“They should just work to reduce crime and get us jobs and houses because that is what we are voting for.”

“The whole Cabinet should spend the hours of the day in townships and villages in order to comprehend the challenges of the people that have to vote.”

“Foreigners should go back to their countries.”

All the major contesting parties are alive to the need to crush rampant crime, provide housing and create jobs. Going through their manifestos, one gets the sense that they regard these as competitive priorities. What they need to do while on the campaign trail is to convince the electorate that these competitive priorities are matched with competitive capabilities.

The sentiment about Cabinet Ministers needing to spend more time among ordinary people fits in with the stereotype of politicians as characters who rock up in the lead-up to voting day, promising their constituents heaven on Earth, only to return during the next election cycle.

The issue around foreigners is an emotive one. Even the parties that have dared to address it have trodden carefully, almost always referring to “illegal foreigners” or “illegal immigrants”.

I have said it before – conversations of this nature are canaries in the coal mine that is the economy of a country. Their coming to the fore is the gasping for breath of the canaries when oxygen levels in the mine – read jobs and other trappings of an economy that is firing on all cylinders – start dropping.

South Africa is not the only country on the continent – or anywhere – where this has happened. A prominent case in point is 1970s Nigeria. Back then, the West African country’s economy was booming as oil prices soared on the world market.

There were simply not enough skilled Nigerians to fill the jobs that came with the boom. Recruiters soon turned to Ghana, a fellow English-speaking nation in West Africa, to woo teachers and other professionals as well as those willing to take up casual jobs, which Nigerians were not keen on. Across the 19 Nigerian states that existed then, primary and secondary schools were filled with Ghanaian teachers, who were well known for their thoroughness. Many did not bother to apply for permits and their employers and the authorities did not care.

Then, in the early 1980s, oil prices started crashing and Nigeria, whose economy was almost exclusively dependent on oil, was hard hit, with 90% of its foreign reserves wiped out by 1982.

As the crunch worsened, Nigeria started to turn inward and politicians started to use words such as ‘aliens’ in their manifestos as the 1983 elections loomed. Migrants, especially Ghanaians, were blamed for the flailing economy and rising crime.

The climax came on January 17, 1983, when the short-lived civilian government of Shehu Shagari ordered that two-million migrants, half of them Ghanaians, leave Nigeria within a fortnight.