Defend Truth


Politicians face an uphill battle to win the trust of a sceptical electorate


Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.

In a post-truth world, where politicians across the ideological spectrum peddle multiple truths, voters are understandably confused by uncertainty, disruption, instability, volatility and misinformation.

Politicians, known for their thick skins and chameleon natures, seldom admit their mistakes, for which voters have the power to make them pay the ultimate price.

It is common cause that South Africa is facing a leadership crisis and there is an erosion of public trust and confidence in politicians and government. 

A rhetorical question: can you trust politicians… not only in sunny South Africa but anywhere worldwide?

As succinctly expressed in a recent social media post, in the 21st century there is a view that “politics is the only profession where you can lie, cheat and steal, and still be respected”, and “politicians continue to show exemplary ingenuity and perseverance in their efforts to fool all of the people all of the time.”

According to Christian Hart, professor of psychology at Texas Woman’s University, a recent “large study that examined the propensity to lie among politicians found that those politicians who are most willing to lie tend to be more successful in getting re-elected. 

“Thus, lying may be important for survival in the world of politics. People don’t lie without a reason. It is easier to tell the truth than to lie, so people only lie when they are incentivised to do so.”

Hart concluded that “people lie when 1) they see some benefit of lying, 2) they think the risks of lying are acceptable, and 3) they can morally justify their dishonesty. 

“Dishonest politicians may regularly see the benefit of lying, feel like they can get away with lying, and see their lying as a necessary part of the job rather than a deep character flaw.”

Or, as Mduduzi Mbiza ominously warned in Daily Maverick: “A culture of normalised dishonesty within political circles can lead to a pervasive environment where unethical behaviour is tolerated and accountability is compromised. 

“If left unchecked, this normalisation may foster an atmosphere where politicians believe they can act with impunity, ultimately undermining the democratic ideals of openness and accountability.”

At first glance, the 27.79 million registered voters in South Africa appear to be spoilt for choice, with would-be politicians (aspiring for the minimum R1.2-million salary per annum – the most optimistic have already placed orders for German sedans) falling over themselves to serve the electorate and country without fear or favour.

There are 52 political parties on the ballot sheet for the seventh general elections for the National Assembly and provincial legislatures, plus a few independents. It is like entering a five-star restaurant and being overwhelmed by the menu’s bewildering array of exotic options. A feast to the eyes, one is tempted to sample the entire menu, well aware of the inevitable consequences.

Similar to the menu, the ballot form has an array of political parties. 

The similar colours of party logos and acronyms are bewildering – ANC, ATM, ACM – and if you are optically challenged (like this writer), it may be difficult to differentiate between logos, colours and acronyms that appear very similar. Some parties may well benefit from the confusion.

It is unclear whether those on the ballot list want to be elected to Parliament or serve the electorate (after 30 years, South Africans now know there is a difference). 

Add to their minimum annual salary package from the public purse of R1.2-million (without a performance contract), kickbacks from tenderpreneurs, undeclared gifts, invisible connections with local, national and global criminal syndicates, and the total package balloons.

Hence, the allegations that some candidates may have resorted to organising assassinations to move up proportional representation lists are unsurprising. 

The motley bunch include pastors – no evidence of any high priestess (in fact, one has yet to see a female face on political posters around Durban) – jugglers, ventriloquists, puppets (and their handlers), serial floor-crossers, convicted felons and clowns seeking a stage to ply their trade in a country where Parliament has been reduced to a circus (at least no animals are being harmed).

There is even a confirmed joker in the pack.

At least one party believes in reincarnation. Another wants to burn the national flag, and several others want to burn the Constitution.

A major concern is that most of them have never governed, have strange notions of power and leadership and do not understand democratic governance. Also, their wild promises suggest they may be hallucinating.

Then there are those being recycled via the corruption belt – being implicated in the perfidious State Capture project now seems to be a badge of honour.

Some yearn for a return to the pre-1994 era; others beg for yet another chance to repair what they have failed to fix for over 30 years. 

There are also some interesting provincial dynamics, with suggestions that it is only a matter of time before South Africans will require a dompas to enter Cape Town. 

Some in KwaZulu-Natal yearn for the dominant authority of traditional leaders of the pre-colonial era.

In a post-truth world, where politicians across the ideological spectrum peddle multiple truths, voters are understandably confused by uncertainty, disruption, instability, volatility and misinformation. 

Voters struggle to separate the wheat from the chaff, while some candidates appear to be high on weed.

While the religious pundits are praying for peaceful elections, the political pundits are predicting that South Africa is likely to be governed by a convenient coalition of cliques and clans, and there are some mind-boggling permutations about whether the centre will hold or will things fall apart.

Former Robben Island prisoner and founder member of the Black Consciousness movement, Professor Saths Cooper, predicted that there will be “a roller-coaster of lofty promises made from high up, while we will mostly continue to experience the lows that have become commonplace. 

“Worse, we have become used to this sorry state of affairs, expecting very little to change. We cry out for divine intervention, knowing that this is impossible. God seemingly helps those who help themselves, and mostly at our expense… 

“South Africa beckons fearless leaders who are among us. South Africa deserves better; more of us who can serve selflessly, than those who are self-serving.”

Of course, democracy entails far more than simply voting. 

Elections are a form of evaluation of the impact of the ruling party. How do we hold those in power accountable when leaders believe they are more equal than subservient voters? The ruling party failed at the most basic level – enforcing law and order without fear or favour as per the Constitution.

According to Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, head of Gift of the Givers (who could easily be directly elected as president via the popular vote if the electoral system is ever amended, and if he were so inclined): “We need four principles to fix this country – we don’t need money. We need spirituality, morality, values and ethics. You fix that, you fix the country. We’ll have a surplus of money overflowing because you’ll do things the right way, in an honest way, with integrity.”

Politicians face an uphill battle in trying to win the trust of a sceptical electorate after the treacherous era marked by the ruling elite’s greed and betrayal of the people.

As Mbiza has emphasised: “Trust, the lifeblood of democracy, must be nurtured and protected. Upholding honesty, transparency and accountability is not just a moral imperative but a necessary step in safeguarding the vitality of democracy for current and future generations.” DM


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