JOHANNESBURG -- Today South Africa goes to the polls in our third ever democratic election. The outcome is certain -- the African National Congress (ANC) will probably win at least 60% of the vote (perhaps even as much as 2/3rds). Thabo Mbeki will continue as President in his second and final term of office. Ten years after the first election, this has been a quiet and almost boring affair reflected perhaps in the reports of increased voter apathy. Yet this is an important election and, if we're fortunate, South Africa's voters will stop voting according to historic allegiances and will cast their ballot according to what matters to them now.
In so many ways, South Africa is immeasurably better off now than when I left the country shortly after I finished school in 1987. People are not arrested in the middle of the night and detained without trial because of their political beliefs. People are free to live wherever they can afford to live and are not confined to certain areas because of their skin colour. Black South Africans are free to go to the movies and restaurants without the fear of being thrown out. We have a press that is often highly critical of government and is free to express itself without fear of reprisals. We have also have a constitution which holds government to account. And of course every adult South African has the right to vote for the political party of his or her choice. It is because of these fundamental changes that I chose to move back here.
Yet despite these improvements in the lives of all South Africans, the problems we continue to face are monumental. Most glaring is the fact that our economy has stagnated for the past 30 years. Per capita income is the same now as it was in 1980. Unemployment is over 40% and anyone visiting Johannesburg will see the evidence of this in the throngs of desperate people begging at traffic lights.
To give it its due, the ANC government has managed the national fiscus well, it hasn't spent extravagantly and overall it has reduced the burden of taxation. Total government expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been steadily declining although if the government goes ahead with its social spending plans, this trend will be reversed. Yet economic growth remains sluggish and unemployment remains high, largely because of South Africa's restrictive labour laws. It is almost easier to get a divorce than it is so fire somebody and so there is little incentive to hire them in the first place.
In the past the government's response to unemployment is to hold large and extravagant conferences and workshops where it discusses the problems of unemployment at length. Of course these talk shops do nothing to increase employment, unless one happens to work for a conference organiser.
In the run up to the election the ANC seemed to change tack on unemployment and is pledging to create 1 million new jobs through expanded public works programmes. These make-work schemes have always failed in the past and will continue to fail. The problem is they take money out of the productive private sector that creates jobs and gives it to wasteful government officials to spend. If the ANC really wanted to create jobs it would leave the money in private hands and remove the minimum wage laws and other labour restrictions.
Apart from the lack of jobs, the ANC has failed miserably in its handling of the HIV/AIDS issue. One would have thought that the successive failures would dent the government's power base. Yet even the Treatment Action Campaign that has courageously taken the government to the constitutional court over the issue still stands by the ANC during election time. It seems our democracy still has some maturing to do when people who have fought bitterly against them still feel duty bound to vote for them.
Of course the government's tacit approval of the murderous regime of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe should also cost it votes but probably will not. Unfortunately the loyal ANC supporters seem to care little about the plight of the ordinary Zimbabweans who supported the struggle against Apartheid for decades.
The ANC is making much of its Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. It claims it will spend R15billion (around $2.2billion) to increase broad based black economic empowerment. Yet the government plans to spend tax payers' money seemingly oblivious of the fact that economic growth in and of itself is empowering. At the moment the greatest beneficiaries of BEE have been the political elite who have become billionaires in recent years. The Apartheid government's Afrikaner Economic Empowerment over many decades did much the same -- empowered a few political elites and left most white Afrikaners behind. The ironic and worrying thing is that the ANC is attempting the same failed policies on a far grander scale.
Perhaps their record on AIDS, unemployment, Zimbabwe and the failure of BEE will reduce the ANC's share of votes, but this is unlikely. Whatever the makeup of the next parliament, perhaps the most important thing is that the election has been peaceful. Perhaps even more important is the fact that there has been an election at all.
Richard Tren is based in Johannesburg and is a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.