IF you want to know what most people in this country live through, look at what the national debate ignores, not what it says.
This country has a loud and lively national debate as opinions clash and a variety of voices is heard. But, if we dig beneath the surface, there is a great deal of noise about not very much. The debate fixates on personalities and parties, not on the issues which shape the lives of most people. We can see how this works if we look not at what has gripped the debate’s attention over the past few days but what it has ignored.
The most important political issue was the non-imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma. News outlets devoted breathless attention to it and political parties rushed to have their say. Broadcasters were deluged with comments from viewers and listeners – digital platforms were abuzz with opinions. Even the taxi conflict in Cape Town was forced into the background.
Whether a former President who went out of his way to show contempt for the law and the courts should serve the sentence the courts imposed on him is an important issue and one on which we would expect debate. But even this discussion was heavy on what people thought of Zuma, light on what it might mean for the rule of law and respect for the justice system.
More important, the focus on Zuma was in marked contrast to the lack of interest in three events which say more about this society than whether Zuma should have served his sentence.
The Three Events
One was the national dialogue on coalitions at which the two largest parties, the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance, proposed changes to the law which, while claiming to make coalitions work better, would restrict the choices of voters, and make it harder to hold elected office holders to account.
The two biggest parties want to make it harder for small parties to win seats in councils and law-making bodies. If their proposals had been law for the 2019 election, there would only be five parties in Parliament rather than 14 – around 600 000 voters who now have a voice there would have been deprived of it. They also want to limit no confidence votes, allowing mayors or premiers or governments to stay in office for up to a year even if voters wanted them gone.
None of this is important enough to get the debate’s attention, despite its interest in political parties. Cheering favoured parties or tipping winners and losers seems to be of interest, but not our right to a voice in law-making or to hold office holders to account.
The second ignored issue was a court case in which non-profit organisations accuse the government of coming up with rules which deprive around 8 million people of grants to which they are entitled. At issue is the R350 a month Social Relief of Distress grant which was originally meant to relieve the economic pain of people living in poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been extended but the campaigners who have brought the case say government rules exclude many people who are entitled to it. They estimate that about 16 million qualify for the grant but only some 8 million are getting it.
This case directly affects the lives of millions. Covid-19’s economic impact was very unequal. In the main, the brunt has been born by people living in poverty. The need for the grant is clear. Research also shows that grants are the country’s most effective measure against poverty – they don’t only make it easier for millions to cope with hardship, they also grow local economies in areas where poverty is widespread.
But the claim that millions of people who are entitled to help have been denied it is of no interest to the debate. We know about it only through a couple of news reports which were given no prominence.
The third event happened in Butterworth, in the Eastern Cape, where a woman killed herself and her three daughters. Local people say she was deep in debt and was driven to destroy her own and her family’s life by poverty.
This may be a horrific human interest story but it also raises important issues about the lives of many South Africans. Poverty, a long-standing reality here has, as mentioned earlier, been worsened by Covid-19. People are also encouraged to judge their worth by whether they own goods they often cannot afford. The last published census found that more people owned television sets than fridges, which suggests that it is more important to show others that you can afford home entertainment than to keep food fresh.
While other victims of these realities do not take their own lives and that of their children, the incident does raise uncomfortable questions about the society’s values and the pressures they place on people. Yet, discussion of this event has happened on the fringes. The people who express heated views on the Zuma issue don’t have anything to say about the economic realities and values which may have triggered this tragedy.
Lack of interest in these last two event is easier to explain. The debate may be loud and lively, but it excludes about two-thirds of the people. Those who receive grants, and those who live through the economic pain which may have triggered the Butterworth killings. are rarely heard. The debate ignores issues which affect the lives of the two-thirds unless they affect the one-third too. Neither grinding poverty nor the grants which might help people deal with it affects the debate.
Why Issues are Non-Issues
A public debate which reflects the views and lives of only one in three people is always going to miss much of the country’s reality. But that does not explain why the coalition proposals were ignored – or why just about all policy issues are of no interest to the debate.
The problem is not that we do not hear lively public debates on the technical issues which fascinate academics and people who make their living dealing with policy issues. We don’t get these anywhere. It is that there is very little public discussion on what should be done about the problems people deal with in their daily lives.
How many heated public debates are there on how to make the economy work better for more people? Or about how to prevent and fight crime? Or even about how to make the local governments about which everyone complains work better? Few, if any. Even load shedding, on which everyone has an opinion, is rarely if ever discussed as a problem to be solved. Like the other issues, it is mentioned only to denounce or applaud a person or a party.
So why are personalities and parties important to the debate but not what ought to be done about the country’s problems? The answer has much to do with the way South Africans whose voices are heard see the country and its problems.
For years, it has been common for people who comment on this country’s politics to be asked whether we are optimistic or pessimistic. This implies that the country is either on its way to becoming a wondrous success or -far more commonly nowadays – a horrendous disaster. In most other countries, it is assumed, accurately, that countries are a mix of pluses and minuses and that they solve some problems but not others. For reasons embedded in our history, the South African debate believes, despite all the evidence, that countries ‘win’ or ‘lose.’
It is only a short step from this to another belief that underpins most of what we hear – that whether the country ‘wins’ or ‘loses’ depends entirely on which people and parties lead it. This is why we hear endless laments about ‘poor leadership’ and why the governing party was once seen as a saviour by many in the debate but is now usually seen as the source of all problems. It is rarely seen as what it really is – a political party competing which other parties whose power to create or solve problems is never nearly as great as we are told.
Given this, it is no surprise that few people in the debate want to discuss issues. If all problems are created or solved by ‘leaders’ and parties, the rest of us need not bother talking about them – it makes far more sense to concentrate on demanding that the ‘right’ people and parties are in charge so that they can solve all the problems.
All this is largely a fantasy. Most of this country’s problems were not created by today’s politicians and parties and will not be solved by them. But they can be solved by informed public debate on what needs to be done and by campaigns in which people try to make their favoured solutions a reality. None of that is possible until the debate begins taking the country’s problems as seriously as it does its personalities.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor at the University of Johannesburg, faculty of humanities, politics department, and writes in his personal capacity.