Twisting the truth for self-gain in the global political arena is sadly not uncommon. Mikhail Petersen highlights the uncomfortable truth that South Africa’s democracy has not been spared. Such tactics by the DA, the official South African majority opposition party, greatly compromises the democratic project.
In the lead up to the 2015 US election, I observed to my utter dismay, how fake news and outright lies had been utilised as a politicking strategy by Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign team. Fake news can be characterised as news, stories or hoaxes created to deliberately misinform or deceive readers.
The realisation that the United States had found itself in a post-fact era was a bitter pill to swallow. This only culminated in the disbelief that was widely experienced when the official election results were released. And, the main proponent and architect of this phenomenon was inaugurated the 45th US president.
I vividly remember in the days following the announced outcome, before Trump had been officially inaugurated, finding solace in the fact that the dirty tactics employed by the Trump campaign machine would never be used in South Africa. Such dirty tricks would, surely, never take root in our awesome constitutional democracy. The political parties in our nation were morally and ethically above this approach. Or so I thought.
Fast-forward to the 2019 national elections in South Africa and the very thing that kept me from losing all faith in the international political landscape happened on our doorstep.
I realised this when the news broke that Democratic Alliance (DA) canvassers were instructed to tell voters that Patricia De Lille was fired from the party because of her corrupt activity in the City of Cape Town.
There was only one small problem with this message, disseminated by employed DA canvassers to hundreds and possibly thousands of prospective voters. De Lille was not fired by the DA. She resigned and all charges against her from within her former party were dropped.
The information that the DA was spreading was outright lies. Or to put it more diplomatically, the statements that were spread to these prospective voters in South Africa were ‘alternative facts.’
In an attempt to defend herself, De Lille then laid a charge against this version of the truth before the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) who ordered the DA to publicly apologise to De Lille within three days.
Instead of admitting they were wrong, the DA once again took the Trumpian approach of ‘dying with the lie’, deciding to appeal the IEC finding. Their argument rides on the logic that it would not apologise unless ordered by a court., In the DA’s eyes the IEC fining has no force or effect.
But there’s an irony to this all. The telemarketing script given to DA employees canvassing for votes did not assist them in strengthening their position locally or nationally.
In terms of the results, nationally, the DA’s percentage of the vote fell from 22.23% in 2014 to 20.27% in 2019. Their provincial figures, in the Western Cape, dropped from 59.38% in 2014 to 55.45% in 2019.
Spreading false information through inaccuracies, lies and fake news is against good democratic principles and practices. Such practices need to be treated and taken seriously by the public — and should result in a great uproar.
If these actions go unchecked, treated merely as a passing media segment in the 24-hour media cycle — as happened in the US elections — then there is a strong possibility that these kinds of tactics by political parties will become commonplace. The erosion of core democratic values, which so many in this country have fought so hard to entrench would be inevitable.