Failure to honour election manifesto promises should be deemed an unethical, if not illegal, act

Failure to honour election manifesto promises should be deemed an unethical, if not illegal, act

The age-old assertion by Otto von Biscmarck, the first German Chancellor, that “people never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war, or before an election” remains remarkably pertinent today.

Echoing the sentiments of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, which scrutinised elections in Liberia, it is evident that campaign promises in vital sectors like education, healthcare and infrastructure lack the essential support of well-documented manifestos or data-driven research findings.

These observations transcend borders and hold equal relevance in the context of South Africa. With the country’s general election looming in 2024, there is a collective hope that politicians will break free from the entrenched culture of pre-election falsehoods present in their manifestos. 

It is time for a transformative shift towards a culture of accountability and transparency, and a sincere acknowledgement of what can realistically be achieved.

Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan recently delivered a captivating performance in the film Jawan that underscores the significance of voting. The narrative prompts reflections on the challenges faced by South Africa. Premiered on 7 September 2023, Jawan portrays a father and son’s courageous stand against corruption in government.

The movie delves into various social issues, including farmer distress and inadequate healthcare facilities, notably shedding light on the tragic case of 63 children losing their lives in 2017 due to an oxygen shortage at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh. 

Khan’s character, in a bid to alter the customary approach voters take during elections, concludes the film with a powerful plea for citizens to be more discerning.

He encourages people to pose critical questions before casting their votes, emphasising the need for voters to inquire about the candidates’ plans for addressing the country’s deep-seated challenges – from dysfunctionality and corruption to unemployment, education and healthcare – over the next five years. 

After watching Khan’s monologue, I am convinced that a different approach must be taken for the 2024 national elections. There is an urgent need to transform political party manifestos into serious policy positions, discarding the usual vote-grabbing tactics and other ploys.

The focus should be redirected towards critical issues affecting the lives of voters, rather than on political leaders trying to upstage each other by lying or making false promises to voters.

In a recent thought-provoking opinion piece in Daily Maverick, Ashley Forbes aptly captures the essence of the required change: 

“Come 2024, let us not have the wool pulled over our eyes yet again. Let us reclaim the political power we entrusted to them; power they have often abused to further their own interests while neglecting ours.”

The upcoming elections present a golden opportunity for citizens to express their discontent and demand a departure from the status quo, reminiscent of the resolute spirit that marked 1994. 

Forbes’ opinion serves as a stirring call to action, challenging the established norms and urging voters to assert their influence in shaping a more accountable and responsive political landscape.

Despite the strides made in promoting social justice since the advent of democracy, the challenges facing South Africa appear to be increasing. 

A recently published study on people living in extreme poverty in South Africa between 2016 and 2030 highlights a concerning trend: “As of 2023, around 18.2 million people in South Africa are living in extreme poverty, with the poverty threshold at $1.90 daily.”

This translates to an alarming increase, with 162,859 more people pushed into poverty compared with the figures reported in 2022. Adding to the growing concerns, Statistics South Africa reported that unemployment reached 32.9% in the first quarter of 2023, up from 32.7% in the final quarter of 2022. Of particular concern is the staggering youth unemployment rate of 46.5%.

The 2022 National Human Development Report (NHDR) for South Africa, a collaborative effort with the United Nations Development Programme, features a poignant statement from African philanthropist Tony Elumelu, chair of Heirs Holdings and the Tony Elumelu Foundation: “Youth unemployment is a tragic waste of talent and a betrayal of a generation.”

The NHDR underscores the gravity of the situation, noting that “when compared [with] other countries in the global context, joblessness in South Africa stands out”.

For South African youth, the post-dawn of democracy era may evoke feelings of betrayal. The unemployment crisis in the country is likened to a ticking time bomb, a haunting nightmare that demands urgent attention and comprehensive solutions. 

As the nation grapples with these stark realities, it becomes imperative for leaders to confront this issue head-on and work collectively towards a more equitable and promising future for all citizens.

As we approach the elections in 2024, it becomes imperative for voters to critically reflect on the election manifestos presented by the main political parties that may potentially form the government, whether independently or through coalitions

It is essential to discern whether these manifestos are grounded in reality or merely represent fanciful aspirations.

An illustrative example is any political party pledging a revival of the death penalty, which would amount to propagating a substantial falsehood on the national stage.

“The death penalty is a travesty of justice. It is barbaric and does not deter crime. It does not help the victims of crime. And it transforms murderers into martyrs and judicial errors into irreversible tragedies,” said Thorbjørn Jagland in 2010 when serving as the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

This perspective underscores the ethical and moral implications of certain promises made during election campaigns.

To further demonstrate my point: The allocation of a R38-million tender by a municipality like the Ruth Mompati District Municipality in the North West, for a seemingly modest prefabricated building in Vryburg, purportedly designated as its new call centre, raises significant concerns about fiscal responsibility and integrity.

Such instances erode public trust, particularly when political figures and their parties pledge to combat corruption during election campaigns. Unfortunately, these assurances often prove hollow, revealing a disconcerting pattern of election fraud perpetrated by individuals unworthy of managing public funds.

The alarming revelation of this scandalous tender award underscores the stark reality that anti-corruption promises serve more as placating gestures than genuine commitments. 

It is perplexing that the ANC-led provincial government allowed an extravagant and illegal expenditure of R38-million on a call centre operating from a makeshift structure, especially in one of the provinces with a dismal track record in service delivery. This substantial sum could have been instrumental in fulfilling unmet promises dating back to 1994.

In my view, the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) must play a pivotal role in shaping the democratic landscape of South Africa by establishing a new set of rules. 

Failure to fulfil manifesto promises should be deemed an unethical, if not illegal, form of misrepresentation. 

It is crucial to safeguard the public from potential harm resulting from the dissemination of dangerous, destructive, deceptive, seductive and damnable lies.

A commitment to truthfulness and accountability in political discourse is paramount for the evolution of a robust and trustworthy democratic system in South Africa.

Professor William Gumede has aptly opined that the IEC should explore regulations aimed at either punishing or deterring egregiously false campaign promises. 

According to Gumede, “Knowingly making false, unachievable and illegal campaign promises amounts to a political lie, breaching ethical standards and honesty.”

From my perspective, there remains a pressing need for such regulations, or a comprehensive review of both the Electoral Act and the Electoral Code of Conduct, specifically addressing the issue of making false or blatantly unattainable promises. 

Manifestos, in their current state, have become nothing more than worthless pieces of paper, and it is imperative to introduce reforms that hold political parties accountable for the commitments outlined in these documents.

Falsehoods uttered by political leaders on the campaign trail should not be shielded under the guise of protected speech. 

In 2013, the Indian Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice recommended making the model code legally binding and incorporating it into the Representation of the People Act of 1951. This was proposed to dissuade political parties from making empty promises in manifestos. Unfortunately, this proposal faced resistance from the courts. 

The underlying idea of this proposal was that if democracy is a social contract between elected officials and ordinary citizens, manifestos should be regarded as a legal contract embodying a country’s purported development agenda.

While making election manifestos legally binding might be viewed by some as a challenging pursuit or a wild goose chase, particularly in a context where the IEC may lack the competence to enforce it, the idea is worth exploring. 

Such a move could serve as a first step towards fostering greater accountability, transparency and integrity in our democratic process.

If we are a country of laws and not man, as we claim to be, we must ask ourselves why we continue to tolerate politicians’ promises riddled with a cavalier disrespect for the truth that’s not allowed to ordinary citizens.

As correctly noted by Stephen D Sencer in an article titled, Read My Lips: Examining the Legal Implications of Knowingly False Campaign Promises and published in the Michigan Law Review in 1991, “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 would not have been given up voluntarily.” DM