South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Op-Ed: Black Ops, paid Twitter, fake news – a real threat to SA’s democracy

Op-Ed: Black Ops, paid Twitter, fake news – a real threat to SA’s democracy

Even with the alleged R50-million the ANC was prepared to pump into an “off the books” campaign aimed at rustling up support for the beleaguered ruling party, coupled with the creation of crude propaganda seeking to discredit opposition parties, the ANC still lost three key metros in last year’s local government election. That’s the problem with political patronage. Paying people to do your dirty work usually attracts incompetents. It is also illegal and criminal. By MARIANNE THAMM.

That the once proud 105-year-old ANC has had to sink this low to whip up electoral support in democratic South Africa is a tragedy. But this is what has become of the continent’s oldest liberation movement under the leadership of Jacob Zuma and those who benefit from close proximity to his power and patronage in these dangerous, desperate days.

There was a time when people would have willingly canvassed, worked for and put up posters for the ANC. Now, in some regions, if the party doesn’t offer some financial incentive to volunteers, little gets done.

That’s the problem with patronage politics which are always devoid of public commitment and scoured of any ideological anchor; everything’s up for sale – your vote, your allegiance, your history, your soul.

Votes too are bought through crude forms of campaigning – the handing out of hard cash, the doling out of food parcels and T-shirts, the funding of cultural groups and then those recurring empty promises.

And with a growing abyss at its moral centre, its ideological compass set on Nkandlanomics, it is not surprising that political entrepreneurs and bottom feeders are attracted to the centre of power that currently holds the ANC in its thrall.

An investigation by amaBhungane published on Monday revealed that the ANC had contracted a “public relations expert”, Sihle Bolani, to roll out an elections marketing strategy prior to the 2016 local government elections. The campaign included setting up an independent news site and chat show employing the services of “influencers” on social media (read ‘paid Twitter’) as well as the printing of fake opposition party posters.

The ANC was to be kept discreetly out of the propaganda loop with invoices being made out to companies that channelled the funds – raised through fundraising by ANC-linked businessman Joseph Nkadimeng – to the so-called Media Advisory Team led by Shaka Sisulu.

The disclosures on Monday are serious and alarming. They most certainly point to a violation of South Africa’s electoral code of conduct which explicitly prevents political parties or candidates from spreading “spurious or vilifying allegations directed at representatives of political parties”.

This so-called “black ops” campaign is as serious a threat to the country’s democracy as the plunder of state resources.

The only cold comfort in the mess that has been exposed is that those employed to deliver votes to the ANC were too incompetent to do so.

Nature hates a vacuum, in other words, and the electorate spoke regardless.

Writing in 2014 on the electoral code, political analyst Judith February pointed out that the code “places an embargo on individuals or groups in passing off symbols, colours or acronyms of other registered political parties as their own. The aim is to lower the likelihood of electoral violence that would ultimately undermine stable elections and democracy.”

Over and above the embargo on passing off symbols, the code “disallows any person or party from interfering with the electoral campaign and marketing strategies of other parties, by prohibiting the vandalism or removal of banners, posters, advertisements or any other materials used by political parties or candidates. Ultimately, the code of conduct forbids any political party or person from misusing a position of power or influence to alter the regulation or end result of an election.”

It has emerged that the ANC’s “war room” did indeed produce posters which were aimed at discrediting the EFF and which showed EFF CIC Julius Malema brandishing an AK47 below the words “Vote EFF, Take Up Arms and Fight”. The fake EFF posters were plastered over legitimate posters. This is – the ANC might not realise – a criminal offence.

For now it seems as if someone could and should be dragged off to the Electoral Court and be held responsible for the ANC’s apartheid-style “black ops” propaganda campaign. Whoever this might be could be fined up to R200,000.

Most worryingly, as February points out in her column, is that the electoral code of conduct provides guidance for the acceptable behaviour of political parties which is “instrumental in yielding credible, free and fair elections, and ensuring a public commitment to fair play from all parties”.

Tampering with this, using propaganda to discredit political rivals and using social media to spread lies, bears all the hallmarks of an emerging autocratic state.

It is the politics of the stomach that has led the ANC down the political cul-de-sac it is about to turn into. The party has deployed, over the years, people of limited talent, skill or pride who have shown contempt for the electorate. There are too many now to list here and that too is a tragedy.

But they include the listless civil servants at Home Affairs, those officials and politicians who gorge themselves on public funds, those spokespeople at key departments who just do not bother to respond to queries and those who are just dumping school text books in dongas. This is the type of less-than-mediocre, self-serving individual that cronyism and patronage attracts.

The leading lights in the ANC, those who are hugely competent at their jobs and who do hold the history and the commitment of the old ANC dear, are sidelined or marginalised (or under attack or threat of arrest) but occasionally dare to speak out.

It is time for more of them to do so.

In 2015, Alexander Beresford, a lecturer in the Politics of African Development at the University of Leeds and a Senior Research Associate attached to the Chair for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg, published, in the Royal African Society journal, African Affairs, an explosive paper, titled “Power, Patronage, and Gatekeeper politics in South Africa”.

In the paper, Beresford warned that patronage politics threatened the quality of South African democracy and that this “will remain a predominant feature of South African politics in the near future”.

The ANC, said Beresford, needed to “confront the fact that the elites dependent on nefarious gateways to public authority to secure their ability to accumulate wealth are unlikely to change their spots quickly, nor are they likely to concede power easily”.

For ordinary citizens, he wrote, reaching out to patron-client networks may well be a vital means of treading water, “but we must be mindful not to celebrate this ‘agency in tight corners’, which ultimately does not challenge the roots of social injustice that lie at the heart of South Africa’s unfinished liberation.”

This latest Black Ops scandal facing the ANC cannot be brushed off or ignored. It is a serious threat to the country’s democratic culture and future free and fair elections. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma addresses foreign nationals outside Home Affairs offices in Marabastad, Pretoria ahead of the State of the Nation Address, 8 Feb 2016. (Photo: GCIS)


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