PETER ATTARD MONTALTO: It’s manifesto time as parties promise riper days under their watch

Writing this as I munch a banana on a weekend morning gearing up for another Saturday stuck in front of YouTube watching politicians, I am certainly not against some easy to access fruit-based sustenance.

We have another two months of this in a drawn-out and indulgent manifesto launch season.

I suspect and fear we are in for a long and repetitious two months of talk of governance and better leadership and better oiled machines and low hanging fruit. Having spent a lot of time discussing policies before manifestos with various parties, I fear there is going to be a deluge of appeals for votes based on the idea that a few things can be fixed quickly and the ANC just hasn’t done them.

Herein lies the central problem of this election — there are no easy wins and quick fixes. The lack of state capacity and fiscal space means there are no short cuts to long, hard slogs.

Changing cultures in the public sector, improving leadership beyond the very top, will easily take five years if not a decade. The complexity that lays behind throwaway lines on logistics reform, say, in manifestos, will be brushed over. Changing state-owned companies again is deep and cultural and there is no ready stock of new board members of high quality, as the recent mixed bags for a new electricity transmission company and Transnet shows. Each has a small handful of good members, with the rest largely stuffing. Shifts to the private sector in each case will take a huge amount of time even if everything goes right in terms of policymaking, procurement and implementation.

The language in many manifestos will either gloss over these complexities or assume that change is really a set of low hanging fruit that can easily be altered with a new party running the government or within a coalition.

As I started to lay out in my column two weeks ago, the role of coalition partners will be far more complex — stopping madness, trying to improve transparency and communications, and trying to stir sentiment — regardless of who the main ruling party is.

Investors are watching the election, having just woken up in the past week to realise there is one approaching. But most interestingly, they are making strong (and not necessarily favourable) comparisons to Argentina. This isn’t about Javier Milei’s policy platform per se — albeit the big-bang approach might well be welcomed in SA.

Instead, this is about how a political party, that only has about 22,000 members, and its leader emerged in the course of a year before the election to suddenly start to take a chunk of polling support (about 30% initially) with a platform to shake the country out of its stuck-in-the-mud status quo. Again this isn’t about the specific policy platform, but about investors and markets seeing a rising probability of an alternative emerging with a good path into an election and detailed plans well laid out, but also an admission that changing the system so fundamentally would be difficult.

This doesn’t exist in SA and the upcoming election shows no sign of it occurring. There is no large emerging party suddenly arriving now — a poor comparison is ActionSA, which didn’t run in 2019 but made a small but meaningful bang in the 2021 local election.

The proto-parties such as Change Starts Now, Rise Mzansi, Build One SA and even the MK Party struggle with wide popular name recognition and interest. It seems we are trying all permutations of proto-party plans. The long and slow progress of Rise Mzansi, born of a movement that was going around local areas doing the groundwork, through to the overfunded attempt that is Change Starts Now, seem unlikely to go anywhere near the bar of even 10%. Such parties are likely to struggle to get beyond handwaving about leadership and “doing things differently”.

There is no clear evidence that this sort of approach will work at scale, and the arena is crowded with such pitches. Columnists often like to take snooty views on the electorate and how dumb they are, which is likely to be happening on steroids in the US this year. This is all fine and fun to read but gets us nowhere.

Perhaps voters know a dramatic shift in politics is needed — a complete destruction and rebuilding of the political economy — to achieve change. They know there is no low hanging fruit and they know — from lived experience — that decay of service delivery at a local level is hard to shift, and so is a shift at the top of the government machine. As such, you take a risk-averse view of things and stick with what you know until that wider seismic shift in politics occurs.

This is exactly why the ANC is going for a negative campaign as a key plank of its rhetoric. It would not be credible for them to talk about low hanging fruit and say they are continuing the long game for another five years of slow step-by-step improvements in governance and the public sector. That is incredibly boring but more credible than saying everything will magically be fixed a year after the election.

As such, the strategy is likely the optimal one — indeed, the only one really available to them. So they end up getting 47-odd percent, which considering how emerging market elections normally go for countries with deep-set problems that are felt by the population, must be seen as a success.

The question that will be asked after such a result will be, do we get a larger change in the political economy? That is perhaps possible within the ANC with no succession plan in place through to 2027, so shocks can occur, though this seems unlikely. It might occur from a consolidation in the opposition as funders realise they have wasted a huge amount of money trying so many different options. Or it might appear out of nowhere. We have no idea how this might happen since there are no signs of it at present.

So just as before, buckling up for the election madness ahead, we also need to buckle up for a longer ride to 2029.


Peter Attard Montalto leads on political economy, markets and the just energy transition at Krutham, a SA research-led consulting company.

This article first appeared in Business Day.