Ahead of Wednesday’s by-election in the Tlokwe Municipality, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini would have us believe that it was a coincidence that her department just happened to be distributing food parcels and blankets in the very ward being contested. The Minister argued this had nothing to do with the by-elections and was part of a social development outreach campaign. As calculated as this might seem, dishing out resources is a universal campaign tactic and manipulation of voters is what elections are all about. It’s not right, but get used to it. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
During the 1999 election campaign, the ANC was determined to win control of KwaZulu-Natal from the Inkatha Freedom Party and therefore sent all its big hitters on the election trail in that province. They fanned out, penetrating previous no-go areas for the ANC.
During one such excursion in a deep rural area in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, a convoy of vehicles festooned with ANC banners carrying national and provincial leaders stopped on a dirt road where a group of women was standing. Some of the women ululated, others watched intrigued as the leaders jumped out of their cars, greeted them warmly and handed out ANC’s election pamphlets.
One old woman looked at the pamphlet, puzzled, and barked at the group of leaders: “What is this? I need mealie meal. What am I going to do with this paper? I can’t eat it.”
The ANC leaders looked embarrassed, glancing at a small group of journalists shadowing them on the campaign trail. They spoke to the old lady in isiZulu, promising that the ANC would bring services and delivery to her area if she voted for them. She looked unconvinced and made the point rather expressively that she couldn’t wait until after the election because she needed food for her family that day.
When the convoy sped off, she stood in the cloud of dust with the pamphlet still in her hand. When asked the obvious question, she said she was not interested in voting for anyone. Her grandchildren needed to eat and these people with their big cars and papers were not going to help her, she muttered as she hobbled off.
Election campaigns are a difficult business. You never know what you will encounter or what the response will be. Most times, people will be thrilled to see political leaders because of their pseudo-celebrity status. If the media is present, it causes even more excitement. But occasionally there are difficult customers who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid.
For politicians, the trick is to appear earnest and concerned about the lives of the people they are wooing. Sometimes things can go horribly wrong on the campaign trail. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was deeply embarrassed when during the 2010 election campaign, he was caught on microphone describing a pensioner he had just spoken to as a “bigoted woman”.
The incident was a major gaffe which gave insight into what politicians really think of the business of having to go down to the people and charm them to vote for them. ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa had a rather embarrassing experience last month during a door-to-door campaign in Limpopo when, according to City Press, a grandmother asked him, “Who are you? Are you Ndebele or Zulu?”
Ramaphosa asked Phala if she was familiar with the colours of the ANC, to which she answered: “I know the spear (on the ANC logo). That is an ANC spear. We are going to vote for that spear.
“But you must increase our social grant,” she added.
Another tough customer told Ramaphosa she would not vote for the ANC: “We don’t have water and the roads are bad. How come these people here have water and where we live we don’t have it? We only have electricity thanks to the people you fired. We want them back,” the paper reported.
Many politicians have discovered that when you come bearing gifts, like t-shirts, or food, people tend to be much more receptive to your message and forgiving of past failings. Former Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi was well known for giving breyani at his election rallies and therefore had excellent turnouts.
Zanu-PF’s election campaigns are built on a heady mix between using the distribution of food as part of the election apparatus and intimidation as a weapon against the opposition. These practices have become such an art form in Zimbabwe that they are disregarded when judging the final outcome of elections.
In South Africa there is now anger about state resources deployed for party campaigning, as was the case this week in the troubled Tlokwe Municipality in the North West. The Democratic Alliance (DA) and South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) have been outraged that the Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini used the guise of her department’s outreach campaign to distribute food parcels and blankets in Ward Nine, where the ANC and DA are going head-to-head in a by-election. Both the DA and Sanco claim this was a stealth move to bribe residents to vote for the ANC. But for as long as Dlamini can justify this as part of the normal work of government, there is little that can be done.
In India a national debate is raging over a Food Security Bill, which aims to provide subsidised food grain to 67% of the population. The ruling party is facing criticism for exploiting extremely high poverty levels to provide cut-price staple food, at taxpayers’ cost, to the masses of the population in order to garner votes in next year’s elections. In the absence of being able to create gainful employment, the proposed legislation is being seen as a shrewd move to keep the poor pacified.
South Africa’s social grant system is used in a similar way to prop up the poor due to massive unemployment and poverty levels in South Africa. With around 16 million people in the country dependent on state funding for survival, the ruling party is able to contain discontent and rebellion. It also means that the ANC has a massive constituency of people grateful to it for support.
The dependence on the grant system is not likely to disappear unless there is a massive turnaround in South Africa’s economic performance and the economy starts producing jobs on a large scale. Therefore any party taking on the ANC at the polls will need to reassure welfare recipients that it will not pull the plug on their grants if they take power.
According to a study released by the Human Sciences Research Council on Tuesday, more than half of South Africans do not have access to enough food. The SA national health and nutrition examination survey found that 26% of the population experienced hunger while 28.6% were living at the risk of being hungry. The study found that the Eastern Cape followed by Limpopo had the highest number of citizens experiencing food insecurity.
These figures should be incurring alarm in society but they are unlikely to. South Africans are accustomed to bad news and figures reflecting the poor state of the economy and society. So instead of holding those who run our country to account, we get by and accept whatever hand-outs they give.
Over the next few months, government will become extremely responsive and active across the country. Elections have an amazing ability to get the state machinery turning and communities will be charmed with new projects and the rollout of delivery.
Political parties are already on the campaign trail making promises and kissing babies. Only few parties have the resources to sweeten their messages with gifts, but the charm offensive is designed to make people believe they are special and their vote will make their lot improve. Many fall for it. And many will be disappointed in the end.
So stand in line: a food parcel, a house or a pamphlet might be heading your way soon. DM
Photo: Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini addresses Media during Social Protection and Community Development Ministerial Cluster Briefing held at GCIS, Pretoria. South africa. (GCIS)
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