While US voters are being wooed by presidential hopefuls with promises of lower taxes, better schools, and a sound Social Security system, the pre-election debate here is about nothing so esoteric.
South African politicians running in the Dec. 5 local government elections are pitching the basics - access to running water and electricity.
Illustrating how much this country has yet to recover from an apartheid system in which whites were afforded all the services expected in a modern society, while blacks lived in third-world conditions, all the major political parties here have made universal delivery of basic utilities their platform.
Currently, only 27 percent of the country's black households have running water, compared with 96 percent of the country's white households. More than 3.2 million, or 34 percent, of South Africa's homes do not have electricity. Almost all of those homes are non-white. Whites make up only 10 percent of South Africa's 45 million people.
WHILE the government has already spent billions of rand since the end of apartheid in 1994 to bring water to an additional 3.5 million people, at that rate, it will take more than another decade to bring tap water to all South Africans.
The wait for clean water is devastating many black communities. Since September, 32 deaths have been attributed to cholera in KwaZulu-Natal Province, where many households have to fetch water from streams, dams, or communal taps.
"The lack of progress the government has made thus far in providing these services isn't surprising," says Tom Lodge, a professor of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The black majority government, says Dr. Lodge, "was confronted with a massive problem when they took over in 1995. And they were bankrupt as soon as they started. [Given such a start], maintaining what infrastructure already exists and balancing the books is actually an achievement."
The platforms of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the opposition parties - the Democratic Alliance and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) - include promises not only to speed up the delivery of these basic services, but also to grant poor people enough free water each day for basic needs.
The Democratic Alliance, a traditionally white party angling for black voters for the first time, is dangling one more carrot before the electorate: The DA pledges to deliver free AIDS drugs to pregnant women and rape victims in the districts it wins.
That unorthodox campaign promise is an attempt to capitalize on ordinary South Africans' frustration with the ruling ANC's approach to the AIDS crisis. About 1 in 10 South Africans is believed to be HIV-positive. Still, President Thabo Mbeki has refused to accept that HIV causes AIDS. He has even said anyone supplying AIDS drugs to women is breaking the law.
At a press conference last month, Mr. Mbeki acknowledged his stance may affect support for his party. "You will get someone who says: 'There he goes again,' " Mbeki said. "But science is not reducible to campaign slogans in the street."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society