Defend Truth


It’s time to act against false election promises and grandiose manifesto claims


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

Many election manifesto pledges amount to nothing more than blatant lies and populist rhetoric, specifically targeting frustrated and vulnerable communities. It is time to have formal election manifesto guidelines.

“If elected, I promise…” This coming from political parties sounds more like an oath of office, and it is not unreasonable for the voters to expect the promises to be fulfilled.

But is the fulfilment of these election promises a lived reality? “Despite being written in black and white, circulated in public, election manifestos do not have any legal implications on political parties, which results in flowery promises being made by parties to gather votes, often forgotten after elections.”

These words are by Ragini Kanungo, published in the Indraprastha Law Review. The observation in the article that “in absence of proper regulation, election manifestos have been reduced to rhetoric documents aimed at manipulating marginalised, gullible populations by promising temporary benefits in the name of ‘freebies’” resonates profoundly.

The exploitation of voters through election manifestos remains distressingly common. Political parties often make promises in these manifestos with the intention of wielding significant influence over the voting population. 

Blatant lies and populist rhetoric

However, many of these pledges amount to nothing more than blatant lies and populist rhetoric, specifically targeting frustrated and vulnerable communities.

With each passing election cycle, the landscape of promises grows increasingly bleak, inundated with empty pledges and unfulfilled commitments. From grandiose vows of ending load shedding, providing sustainably free education, eradicating unemployment and poverty, to lofty aspirations of ending corruption, the gap between rhetoric and reality widens, leaving citizens disillusioned and disheartened.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘For the people, by the people’ — fact-checking seven claims in Rise Mzansi’s election manifesto

South Africa’s recent descent in international rankings, particularly in perceptions of corruption within the public sector, further compounds the crisis of governance. As our nation finds itself categorised among flawed democracies, teetering precariously close to non-functioning regimes, concrete actions must replace hollow promises to restore faith in our democracy and governance.

In our fledgling constitutional democracy, founded on the principles of human rights and freedoms, the proliferation of false campaign promises has emerged as a formidable challenge. This troubling trend has contributed to a pervasive distrust of political speech, depriving voters of the accurate information necessary to make informed political choices.

Tainted by deceit

When campaign rhetoric is tainted by deceit, it stifles genuine dialogue and deprives citizens of the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions about the future of our nation.

Ethicist Prof Sissela Bok, makes a telling argument about the negative psychological consequences that political lies and false promises have on voters in her 1978 book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life.

According to Bok, “voters and candidates alike are the losers when a political system has reached such a low level of trust. Once elected, officials find that their warnings and their calls to common sacrifice meet with disbelief and apathy, even when their cooperation is most urgently needed…

“The fact that candidates, should they win, are not expected to have meant what they said while campaigning, nor held accountable for discrepancies, only reinforces the incentives for them to bend the truth the next time, thus adding further to the distrust of the voters. Political lies, so often assumed to be trivial by those who tell them, rarely are… When political representatives or entire governments arrogate to themselves the right to lie, they take power from the public that they would not have been given up voluntarily.”

Admittedly, my proposal that “failure to honour election manifesto promises should be deemed an unethical, if not illegal, act” will, in a country like ours, need many years to be taken seriously.

Crucial need

In light of recurring issues with unfulfilled election promises, there arises a crucial need to contemplate some level of regulation regarding election manifestos. While acknowledging the potential challenges and backlash associated with such regulations, it is essential not to be discouraged.

The Supreme Court of India, for instance, in 2013 directed the Indian Electoral Commission to frame guidelines on election manifestos to be included as part of their Model Code of Conduct.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

After three decades of democracy in South Africa, the recurring cycle of elections and unfulfilled promises has eroded public trust in the political process. It’s imperative for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to embark on a comprehensive review of the Electoral Code of Conduct.

This review should prioritise the inclusion of provisions that establish clear guidelines on election manifestos. By delineating specific criteria for election manifestos, such as feasibility and accountability, the revised Electoral Code can ensure that political parties commit to realistic and achievable promises.

Electoral credibility the bedrock of trust

It is a fact — the credibility of electoral promises forms the bedrock of citizens’ trust in their leaders. However, when politicians make false pledges during election campaigns, it undermines this trust and erodes the very foundation of democracy.

Beyond the immediate impact on voter disillusionment, such deception often leads to a domino effect, resulting in the failure of governments to deliver essential services and meet the needs of the populace.

From infrastructure development to fiscal security, the repercussions of broken promises reverberate throughout society. The prevalence of false election manifesto promises not only threatens the legitimacy of democratic institutions, but also hampers effective governance and service delivery, ultimately jeopardising the wellbeing of citizens.

While the road ahead may be daunting, it is important that we confront these challenges head-on. By demanding accountability, transparency, and ethical leadership, the populace can reclaim the promise of a better future for all South Africans. It is time to have formal election manifesto guidelines. DM


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  • Martin Smith says:

    As the liberal establishment loses its grip on information and power the cry to censor this and outlaw that grow louder and louder. Yet even under the most obvious of circumstances the law is a clumsy and inexact weapon prone to error and miscarriage. If people are not moral enough or honest enough or competent enough to try to do the best to the best of their abilities when serving the public, and the public is not wise enough to eschew the charlatans, a self-appointed elite handing down its subjective and imperfect version of truth as legal writ will only make a bad situation very much worse.

  • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

    So you refer to a problem that has received so much media attention over the years that it is already warn out. Why does DM publish such drivel? Is it just to fill up the gaps? My question is what are you going to do about it? You sound so tough but my experience of South Africans over 50 years are that they are generally cowards. If you really want change look towards Myanmar. Look towards the Ukraine. Look towards Iraq and Syria. I agree, not all of these are “legitimate” but it summarizes what you require to bring about change. Mankind has not changed and the methods for lasting change has not either. Sorry

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