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23 July 2017 06:40 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

The DA’s SMSes: Judgment Day, and its likely impact

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

How robust are politicians and political parties allowed to be when they engage in election campaigning? In the absence of a court finding to that effect, can one party call another party or its leaders racist? Can one candidate call another dishonest or callous without clearly stating that this was just his or her opinion and setting out the factual basis for such opinion? In the recent Constitutional Court judgment of Democratic Alliance v African National Congress and Another the majority of judges held that the Electoral Act and Electoral Code would normally allow such robust forms of speech. The minority judgment had a more restrictive view.

Last year before the general election the Democratic Alliance (DA) sent out an SMS during the election campaign which stated: “The Nkandla report shows how Zuma stole your money to build his R246m home….”

The African National Congress (ANC) approached the High Court for an interdict and other relief on the basis that the DA was not entitled by our law to distribute the SMS. The ANC relied on section 89(2)(c) of the Electoral Act and/or item 9(1)(b) of the Electoral Code, which prohibits any registered political party or candidate from publishing any “false information” with the intention of influencing the conduct or outcome of an election.

The majority of judges of the Constitutional Court have now rejected the ANC claim. Five judges (Justices Cameron, Froneman, Khampepe, Moseneke and Nkabinde) found it unnecessary to answer the question of whether the statement contained in the SMS was false or not. Instead, it found that the SMS expressed an opinion, not factual information, and was hence not prohibited by section 89(2)(c) of the Electoral Act or item 9(1)(b) of the Electoral Code.

The approach of these five Justices towards freedom of speech during an election campaign differed markedly from that of the minority judgement. The five judges argued that the suppression of speech during an election would have “severely negative consequences” on an election, as it would “inhibit valuable speech that contributes to public debate and to opinion-forming”.

As the judges pointed out:

“Political life in democratic South Africa has seldom been polite, orderly and restrained. It has always been loud, rowdy and fractious. That is no bad thing. Within the boundaries the Constitution sets, it is good for democracy, good for social life and good for individuals to permit as much open and vigorous discussion of public affairs as possible.”

The justices argued that during an election campaign, assertions, claims, statements and comments made by one political party will be “countered most effectively and quickly by refuting them in public meetings, on the internet, on radio and television and in the newspapers”. The robust protection of freedom of expression during elections thus enhances, and does not diminish, the right to free and fair elections. That is why the relevant sections of the Electoral Act and the Electoral Code had to be interpreted in a manner that would limit freedom of expression as little as possible.

A minority of three judges (Justices Zondo, Jafta and Leeuw) seemed to focus more on the alleged threats posed by robust but potentially untrue or difficult to prove expression on the running of free and fair elections. For these judges elections cannot be free and fair where political parties or politicians are allowed to make statements about opponents that are not factually true, or not clearly couched as opinion based on true facts that are either well known or that are mentioned by the speaker when he or she expresses an opinion.

To provide a pertinent example: the minority believes that the a free and fair elections would be endangered if a politician was allowed to state that X was racist or that party X was racist – unless the politician clearly stated that he or she was expressing an opinion and referred to the factual basis for the expression of the opinion.

Whether this view is at all plausible is not clear to me. If the minority view were to be sustained many of the views expressed by politicians during an election campaign would become illegal. If the minority view were upheld, many politicians (of all political parties) would face a ten-year prison sentence for expressing views that are false, partly false or that are impossible to prove as being true. As Justice van der Westhuizen pointed out (in a separate majority opinion in which Madlanga concurred):

“In a pre-election environment people are generally aware that political slogans can be highly exaggerated interpretations of facts and that they come from a partisan and subjective viewpoint. In modern-day democracies spoilt by a multitude of media opportunities, political parties formulate punchy, provocative and less-than-accurate sound bites all the time, and are given a wide berth to do so. Perhaps fairly little of what electioneering politicians say is wholly incapable of being labelled as ‘false’ in one way or another.”

For me what lies at the heart of the disagreement between the two majority opinions, on the one hand, and the minority opinion, on the other, is the trust the majority place on political parties to debunk the wild accusations of their opponents and on voters to take many of the claims made by politicians with a pinch of salt. The two majority judgments seem to accept that political discourse is often infused with rhetoric and false or only semi-true claims or claims that cannot easily be proven.

The minority judgment seems to be premised on the idea that the law should prohibit such forms of expression to protect voters from the political rhetoric that flies around during election campaigns. In my view the minority holds a slightly patronising view of voters – as if we are unable to distinguish between political rhetoric masquerading as fact and actual fact. And must be protected by the law from being exposed to such rhetoric.

In any event, the five judges who delivered the main judgment for the majority interpreted the relevant provisions of the Electoral Act and the Electoral Code narrowly to limit the kind of speech that would be prohibited by it.

Pointing out that the Electoral Act imposes tough criminal penalties (up to ten years in prison) on anyone found in breach of section 89 of the Act, the judges suggested that the prohibition on false information needed to be interpreted narrowly. As such, the judges suggested that section 89 was designed to protect the mechanics of the conduct of an election: voting, billboards, ballot papers, election stations, observers, and vote counts.

As the judges explained, the kind of statement that would constitute the provision of “false information” would be a statement falsely informing voters that a voting station had been closed. False statements that a candidate for a particular office has died, or that voting hours have been changed, or that a bomb has been placed, or has exploded, at a particular voting station, or that ballot papers have not arrived, or omit a particular candidate or party, would all have the effect of jeopardising the practical mechanics of securing a free and fair election.

Contested statements whose correctness could not be proven would not, according to this view, derail the free and fair election because voters (with the help of other political parties) would distinguish between wild claims and proven facts.

According to the five justices the section was not intended to limit the ability of politicians or a political party to make statements about their opponents that may well be difficult to prove as fact: say, that X or the party she belongs to is anti-poor, or anti-black, or callous, or corrupt.

However, the five judges said that it was not in fact necessary to go as far as finding that section 89(2) does not prohibit the dissemination of any information aimed at influencing voters’ views about opposing parties. As the section only prohibits “false information”, all the court had to do was to decide whether the SMS constituted fact or opinion. If it contained opinion and not a statement of fact, it was not covered by the section and was thus not prohibited.

The justices held that the SMS fell outside the ambit of section 89(2) because it was not a statement of fact but an interpretation of the content of the Public Protector’s Report on Nkandla. The SMS did not state as fact that the Report found President Jacob Zuma guilty of theft. What it did was to say that the Report “showed” how the president “stole your money”. This was the opinion of the DA, not a fact.

The minority disagreed with this view. Relying extensively on Apartheid-era precedent from the then Appeal Court, the minority argued that the SMS constituted a statement of fact, not an opinion and, hence, contravened section 89(2) of the Electoral Act. A politician or party would fall foul of the relevant section of the Electoral Act and the Electoral Code unless it could clearly indicate that it was expressing an opinion and not stating a fact and it further provided the voters with the information on which the opinion was based.

In terms of this minority view it would be illegal to say that party X or candidate X was racist. But it would be legal to say in your opinion party X or candidate X was racist because, for example, X used the “k” word on such and such a date, or party X only had .01% black members or had no black leaders or party X had such and such a policy that discriminated against black people.

On this basis the minority found that the DA SMS on Nkandla was not phrased as an opinion but as a fact and that its statement of fact was false.

In contrast Justices Van der Westhuizen and Madlanga found that it did not matter whether the statement was one of fact or opinion (as, in any case, it would not always be easy to distinguish between the two), but rather “whether the statement is purporting to describe a readily falsifiable state of affairs which poses a real danger of misleading voters and undermining their right to a free and fair election”.

The judges then examined the content of the SMS to determine whether it could – on a generous interpretation – be said that the claim contained in the SMS was true. Unlike the other judges, Van der Westhuizen and Madlanga found that the claim could possibly be considered true. The judges then concluded:

“According to the Nkandla Report, there was ‘misappropriation’ of taxpayer money. The president benefitted from it. The misappropriation appears to have been tacitly accepted and in certain circumstances caused by the president, as set out in the Nkandla Report. The Nkandla Report seems to ‘show’ that the president at least accepted actions, which resulted in the misuse of taxpayer money, which should not have been used on the project. It does not indicate that the President intended to return the appropriated money. The conduct alleged in the Nkandla Report does fall under a broadly conceived but reasonably possible meaning of the word ‘stole’, used in the context of an election campaign.”

It is important to note that even Van der Westhuizen and Madlanga did not find that President Zuma is a thief. They could not do so as a court had not found the president guilty of theft. Neither has the Public Protector found in her Report that the president had stolen any money.

What the justices did was to say that theft does not only have a technical legal meaning. For example, you can say colloquially that a cell phone company is robbing you blind with their exorbitant rates. This does not mean the company has been found guilty of theft, but that you believe the company is wrongly inflating its prices in a manner that disadvantages you.

In any case, although the judgment of the majority has been hailed as a victory for freedom of expression during election campaigns, I am not sure it will make a big practical difference to the robustness of speech during election campaigns in South Africa.

This is because during past election campaigns in South Africa politicians and political parties have often made claims about their opponents not couched as opinion and not based on clear evidence. Up until now they have not faced any consequences for making often wild and even spurious claims about opponents.

Elections are often fought via sound bites (X is racist!; Y is anti-poor!; Z is corrupt!), and as Justice Van der Westhuizen pointed out, “fairly little of what electioneering politicians say” in such sound bites is likely to be completely true. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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