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Is there anything left to say about the elections?

No. You can stop reading now.

The weird thing about this election is how flat it feels. There are few new narratives, new fights or dramatic surprises. That the DA attacked Rise Mzansi in such a — supposedly — cack-handed way raised eyebrows but is not entirely surprising as an election strategy.  

One was also taken aback at how the market supposedly lost its mind when the electoral court ruled former Jacob Zuma could appear on the ballot paper. 

Is anyone targeting new voters the since 2021 local elections, let alone the 2019 national elections? The style of the campaigns suggests not — though supposedly the ANC is targeting an extra 1-million votes than 2019 as a stretch target.

Yet some subtle signs of intrigue are emerging. Opposition parties’ rhetoric is starting to flex around how they will react to the need for coalitions and everyone seemingly being open to the ANC in some shape or form.

Similarly, the multiparty coalition seems to have died as an entity that can speak with any cohesive voice or provide any meaningful united opposition — with infighting and behind-backs briefings against each other a-plenty.

As such, we seem to have 40 days of “election as logistics” ahead of us. This is elections as process rather than ideas — or rather the process (and money) is what moves the dial rather than ideas or ideology. The latter is set; the former is all to play for.

Rallies and senior ANC members popping up to look impressed at a tap are familiar sights just weeks before we head to the polls. Again, this is unsurprising. There is nothing particularly left to say for or against the ANC or for or against the main opposition.

Still, some introspection is useful. Particularly from the media. The EFF seems to be falling flat in the polls (and on the ground). If sustained into the results, this should perhaps put paid to the media obsession with the EFF as more like a 40% party than a 10% party.  

After the election, regardless of the outcome — matters will have to turn to change — stepping up a gear, dispensing with the patience and forward drive. But change with what? There is hardly a cadre of amazing “doers” ready to become civil servants after the elections.

This is the engine room of change. Even if you have a slew of new ministers with all the right questions and ideas (and that’s pushing it slightly) and even if they have the right advisers (that’s pushing it even more), someone actually has to do the doing.

These are the hard and boring issues that are being raised only around the periphery of the election campaign and which the media has shown barely fleeting interest in when manifestos came out. Everyone — the ANC included — needs to get the state to work.

The need for this is perhaps not always entirely understood. If you believe that absolutely nothing is happening on reform at the moment then there is a risk of misdiagnosis.

The problem is more complex. Now there is a central force (Operation Vulindlela) able to push forward a few large set piece reforms and deploy political capital selectively to do so. The process is hard but it works.

It, however, cannot deal with the full complexity of all the layers and secondary reforms required to make the initial reform work. This is the “onion” problem of SA. Each new layer needs additional capacity, change management, expertise and political capital. Does a coalition help or hinder this?

The trite answer is we don’t know because it hasn’t happened before at national level. There seems little evidence for it helping at metro level, but that is a different form of governance with different powers.

Arguably, it should help if there are more eyes in more areas, each wanting to score wins and show their electorate they are achieving things. Still, one cannot expect politicians to be on top of all the details. This highlights the importance of expert advisers who, alongside expert civil servants, can craft political and bureaucratic agendas for change.

This has been missing within the departments of mineral resources & energy and public enterprises — for instance, around so much of the Eskom reform agenda.

Let’s not forget that the Eskom road map was birthed four-and-a-half years ago, pushed off in its basket into the river of events and promptly became stuck on the rocks of complexity with little oomph politically or bureaucratically (outside Operation Vulindlela) to push it forward.

As an aside, the emergence of a crack team of advisers around the minister of electricity has been somewhat of a breath of fresh air.

Now we discover huge complexity to implementing the market code launched last Friday — lengthy processes with a regulatory policy that should be pushing such forward-looking thinking but is struggling to keep above water.

Similarly with the transmission build, which everyone finally agrees is urgent. There is still not a full understanding of the level of complexity around actually unlocking scale and speed.

Hence a report we at Krutham published last week in collaboration with Meridian Economics that laid out the dependencies from transmission models. Tariffs, in particular, have until now been the largely overlooked element to unlock investment and will require capacity and insights from the National Energy Regulator of SA that are not now present.

Indeed, whomever is in whichever ministries in the next administration will have to tackle the problem of regulators and capacity across the public sector.

The Operation Vulindlela agenda has rightly created a huge shift that requires independent regulatory oversight of the interaction between state-owned enterprise monopolies and the incoming private sector in network industries.

However, each regulator needs capacity and the ability to generate forward looking vision and agendas for its sector. Throwing hands in the air and saying “they are independent there is nothing we can do” won’t work.

No-one is asking any party how it intends to solve these deeper issues around how the public sector works or a change of management to achieve its ends. True, these are exceptionally boring issues for the electorate and the media. (And there are so many more: how will they solve the blockages at the deeds office and masters office? How will they actually be able to shift the urban planning environment if they are in control of the department of co-operative governance to solve issues of spatial inequality?)

Yet this boring stuff is what will make the difference in growth rates, unemployment rates and inequality rates in the next administration.

A party that actually talks about the boring stuff might well surprise.

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

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