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'Punish or deter outrageously false campaign promises'

- William Gumede

Poll chancers: politicians who make false promises must be punished.

Politicians knowingly making promises during elections campaigns that are pie-in-the-sky, should be investigated by the Independent Electoral Commission for undermining voters’ ability to make informed choices.

Knowingly making false, unachievable and illegal campaign promises amounts to a political lie, breaches ethics and honesty.  

It is intended to deliberately deceive voters – many of whom are desperate, illiterate and do not know better. It now appears that even political campaign speeches have been “captured”.

Outrageously false campaign promises undermine the credibility, legitimacy and trust in the country’s electoral system – and also in politics broadly.

Increasingly ahead of elections political leaders and parties are making false, unrealistic and unattainable promises in order to get the votes. Making false and unrealistic promises are unethical, immoral and irresponsible.  

It shows a shocking disregard for the truth. Leaders and parties show their disrespect for poor, desperate and illiterate voters by promising them things that are patently undeliverable. Making such promises are not in the best interests of the constituencies they purport to serve, neither is it in the best interests of the country. 

False promises also undermine the credibility of information given to voters to base their voting decisions on. False campaign information, particularly in a society such as South Africa with high levels of illiteracy, with rural and township citizens who often do not have access to credible information, undermines the credibility of truthful, fact-based and evidence-based information, as unknowing ordinary citizens believe the false information they receive from cynical politicians and political parties.

Voters cannot make informed voting decisions based on false election campaign promises. False campaign promises undermine the sacred power of the vote itself.

It also undermines open public debate over policy choices to be decided on because campaign promises are based on untruths.

It also shows the hunger for power for its own sake that many political leaders and parties that would say anything to be elected to be part of the gravy train of high salaries, perks and access to patronage. 

Certainly, since the end of apartheid, populism has regrettably become a dominant strand of South Africa’s politics. Unscrupulous politicians tell desperate voters what they want to hear, even if such promises cannot be fulfilled, just to get into power.

Former ANC and South African President Jacob Zuma was the master of populism, and in the 2014 national elections campaign promised six million new jobs and five million new houses. In the run-up to the ANC’s 2017 national conference he promised free higher education for the poor and working class students, in spite of the National Treasury and the 2017 Heher Commission into the Feasibility of Fee-Free Higher Education and Training saying universal free higher education was unaffordable.  

Following week-long protests by disgruntled Alexandra residents in April 2019 over runaway, lack of housing and the proliferation of drugs dens, President Cyril Ramaphosa promises the residents the government will build one million new houses over five years for the area.

Stephen D Sencer, a US political scientist argues that election campaign speeches are unique in the sense that the “same standards of accuracy to which other forms of speech held” are not always strictly applied to campaign speeches, because in many cases political campaign speeches are largely political rhetoric.

Nevertheless, during this elections campaign for the 1 November 2021 local elections, the Economic Freedom Fighters took unrealistic promises to astonishingly new lows. Although this is the elections for local government, the EFF has made some promises that are not within the competence of the local sphere, but falls under the auspices of national government.

Among the promises of EFF leader Julius Malema, includes increasing current social grants payments by 100%, children of social grant recipients will get free education at school and higher education institutions and that water and power will be free for all social grant recipients. Ordinarily, local government cannot introduce such new policies, only national government can.

Of course, it is very difficult for ordinary citizens to seek legal recourse to hold politicians to account who make wild promises – beyond not voting for such leaders and parties. However, there has to be a way to hold politicians and parties accountable for making false campaign promises.

In 1964, the US Supreme Court, pronounced that deliberately false speech by politicians would not enjoy constitutional protection in the US. The US Supreme Court said: “For the use of the known lie as a tool is at once at odds with the premises of democratic government and with the orderly manner in which economic, social, or political change is to be effected. Calculated falsehood falls into that class of utterances which ‘are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality ....’ Hence the knowingly false statement and the false statement made with reckless disregard of the truth, do not enjoy constitutional protection”.

The IEC may have to look at regulations to either punish or deter outrageously false campaign promises. The best way to stop the proliferation of false promises in elections, is for voters simply not to vote for political parties and leaders who make false claims, promises and statements. This would hopefully in the future deter political parties and leaders from making false campaign promises.

William Gumede is Associate Professor at the School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in the Sunday Times Daily.