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Judith February: Rising above election rhetoric

2014 has certainly not started slowly. The ruling ANC has already turned up the rhetoric a notch or two and Helen Zille seems to have stepped right into it with her call for an investigation into the 2013 matric results. In politics timing is everything and Zille made a bit of a tactical misstep playing straight into the wily Jacob Zuma's hands. Elections are Zuma's playing field, especially when speaking in his native tongue. Any opportunity he gets to paint the opposition, especially the Democratic Alliance, as racist and disinterested in the lot of the poor, black majority, he will take.

The South African education standards authority Umalusi had previously recommended that matric exam markers be put through some type of competency test. This recommendation was only implemented in the Western Cape. Zille's point regarding competency of markers thus falls against this background and the Western Cape only being placed fourth in the country as opposed to its second place last year. Calling for an investigation into the national results sounded a little like sour grapes though.

And so Zuma unashamedly and deviously played the race card, referring to Zille as a 'white woman' in what was clearly an opportunistic attempt to stir up emotions. The slur at Zille of course only exposed Zuma's inability to employ reason to engage Zille. Marius Fransman of the ANC then even more unhelpfully entered the matric results debate. Fransman is out of his depth when dealing with educational matters and if he had bothered to check the facts he would have noticed that despite the Western Cape being placed fourth, this province has one of the lowest drop-out rates, followed by KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Fransman asserted quite the opposite.

So, we can expect more of the same as the ANC uses the language of race and privilege to attack the DA. We can also expect many more gaffes from Zuma on the campaign trail - the ANC will govern forever, a cow for every ANC vote and the call to change the Constitution should the ANC gain a two thirds majority. One wonders what in the Constitution per se inhibits Zuma's administration from doing its job?

But we can only hope that the real issues of this election will not be obscured by such meaningless and destructive rhetoric. We celebrate 20 years of democracy this year and no-one can argue against the progress that has been made, with access to basic services and social grants being provided to millions and a society markedly transformed. Yet, we have immense challenges which need to be confronted with both energy and principled commitment.

Our levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality are unsustainable and there is no neat solution on the horizon. Thus far government's strategy has been to grow the economy and increase manufacturing and infrastructure spend. In addition, the Employment Tax Incentive Act, or the so-called 'wage subsidy', will ensure jobs for 178,000 young people and the jobs fund spend of R5 billion over 3 years will create 109,000 jobs.

Dealing with the challenge of 4.5 million unemployed will take more than the promise of a cow.

Re-establishing our very fragile social compact post-Marikana should be our collective priority for a society straining at the seams with inequality. The ANC has called for radical economic transformation. That will require reasoned debate across all sectors of society. But more than that, it will require the kind of social solidarity across race and class, from the private and public sector. This means a Herculean effort of negotiation and trust, whether it is on the promise of a minimum wage or excessive executive pay which Zuma so bemoans. But social solidarity will require not only that the private sector gives, it will also require government to lead by example as regards excess. We cannot therefore wish away questions of corruption in relation to the excessive expenditure on Nkandla, for instance. Successful, modern economies are not created in secret states where corruption thrives.

So while 2014 might not be the watershed election many are predicting, the year itself will be a tricky one to navigate. The ANC has said, predictably, that Jacob Zuma will be the face of its campaign. Of course, should Zuma be found wanting post-elections, will 'recall' be on the cards? And if not, what sort of cabinet will Zuma assemble should the rumour mill be true and Gordhan be on his way out? The finance portfolio is an acid test which Zuma dare not mess up.

There is thus far more to lose than gain this election year and the ANC-led government will need to rise beyond the rhetoric to capture the imagination of voters and find the resource and reason to lead as it once did.

Judith February is executive director of democracy and governance at the HSRC. The views expressed are her own.

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