Election promises

2008-12-02 00:00

WITH a general election still some months away, voters are already being lured by contesting enticements. The yet-to-be-launched Congress of the People (Cope) has obviously not yet refined its policy, but is making promises — a hybrid constituency system and election of the president by direct ballot, for instance — which are both healthy and affordable.

The secrecy of the ballot box means that Cope remains an unknown threat to the African National Congress. Certainly it has attracted some high-profile defectors. The ANC’s response has been to come out with a raft of social security promises. These include the extension of the child support grant to

18-year-olds, help for young people aged 18 to 25 who are trying to get work, income support for all unemployed, ensuring that 60% of schools are no-fee institutions, crime reduction, pensions for all and a million new houses in the next five years.

An extended security net for the poor is obviously highly desirable. But it must be practicable and affordable. How feasible will all this be? Like the individual, the finances of any state boil down to a simple equation. It can only spend what it earns. It can certainly borrow if it can’t afford to implement its plans out of current revenue, but then it must be able to repay the debt sooner or later. Its source of income is the tax paid by its citizens and the companies that do business in it. And their ability to pay, in turn, depends on growth. The state can only tax profits, not losses. Hence it must keep its companies profitable and its high earners earning. Wealth creation is therefore the prerequisite for social security.

A further reality check on lavish promises is the matter of the bureaucracy necessary to implement them. It’s all very well to declare that South Africans will be looked after from the cradle to the grave, but at the moment the machinery necessary to do this simply does not exist. How many children are there who do not benefit from the existing child grants simply because their caregivers — often elderly grannies — have been unable to identify and jump through the innumerable bureaucratic hoops necessary before state largesse can be released?

Promises in an election year are easy to make. Voters need to maintain a healthy scepticism as to how easy or even possible it will be to implement them.

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