Negative campaigning and 'war room' tactics heating up ahead of election

ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa at the rollout of the ANC manifesto in Limpopo. (Image via ANC Twitter)
ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa at the rollout of the ANC manifesto in Limpopo. (Image via ANC Twitter)

In an environment of stifled public discourse characterised by intolerance, mistrust and willingness to embarrass people instead of engaging them, political parties are becoming very weary of being brought to task, writes Ralph Mathekga.

One of the lessons from of our experience with elections thus far is that our politicians increasingly tend to resort to negative campaigning against each other, instead of making a case about what they are offering.

This has become a global trend experienced by some democratic societies, where negative campaigning can become quite nasty. Our elections here in South Africa are no exception.

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In the months towards the May 8 elections, we are witnessing a steady rise in negative campaigning even amongst opposition parties. There are also sporadic complaints being raised by some individuals who have taken matters to court relating to views being expressed in the public dialogue.

There are noticeable confrontations that have shaped the environment leading towards the elections whereby political parties and leaders refer each other to courts over remarks made in the public space. The tensions between the EFF and AfriForum are one example of public dialogue gone wrong.

AfriForum has been able to obtain court judgments against EFF leader Julius Malema following complaints that Malema incited illegal occupation of land. The EFF, on the other hand, has also undertaken to sue a political analyst for having said that "The EFF are graduates of the corrupt ANC".

In a court decision delivered a few weeks ago, in a case involving current Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba and former mayor Parks Tau, the judge held that Tau defamed Mashaba in his public comment that the mayor hates being black. Mashaba won the court battle, and Tau's comments were found to be hurtful and not fitting for a decent political engagement.

After starting a new political party following her stint at the DA, former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille has threated to sue the DA for defaming her by distributing the message that the party had fired her to root out corruption.  

In an environment of stifled public discourse characterised by intolerance, mistrust and willingness to embarrass people instead of engaging them, political parties are becoming very weary of being brought to task about their positions on matters. Instead of openly defending themselves by providing reasons for their conduct including taking a position on policy matters, political parties are generally intolerant of criticism and they are defensive.

This is where public discourse towards the elections is likely to be influenced by communication "war rooms", as opposed to open and honest engagements with people about matters that involve their lives. 

WATCH: Inside the ANC's election 'war room' - proudly brought to you by Bosasa

The ANC is accused of using a "war room" tactic to influence public perceptions about the party in the time leading towards the elections. Recently, the ANC has faced criticisms resulting from allegations that the party has utilised an information "war room" set up by the controversial security and facilities management company Bosasa. Of course, the DA has laid a formal complaint against the ANC regarding the matter.

It is not the first time that the ANC finds itself facing allegations relating to the its attempts to hire brains with the aim to address negative public perceptions about the party. The ANC was brought into a legal dispute relating to a public relations contract towards the 2016 local government elections.

Surprisingly, it matters to the ANC how the party is reflected upon by the public. I won't be surprised if someone has been hired to clean up the possible public relations fallout from the commissions of inquiry underway revealing how the party seems to have been complicit in state corruption.

There is nothing wrong with a political party investing in public relations and hiring people to do such kinds of jobs. The challenge becomes when such a drive to shape public perceptions becomes an obsession; whereby the party manufactures lies or attacks individuals whose views are legitimately different from that of the party. When such experience is encountered, political parties can resort to atrocious means to delegitimise those who are genuinely critical of the party.

It is usually political parties that are in power that tend to be more intolerant towards criticisms and a rigorous public debate where the party's position is being interrogated. In the case of South Africa, even some of the opposition parties have shown discomfort when confronted with genuine questions about their intensions. When it comes to intolerance of dissenting views, most parties in South Africa share similar suspicions towards critical voices in society.

Therefore, being nervous about the public discourse seems to be a South African problem, and not necessarily something peculiar to the ANC.

It is worrying when opposition parties harbour doubts about the authenticity of a public dialogue about parties. Even more worrying is the subtle belief by the opposition that they need their small "war rooms" to sort out public perceptions about the missions of their parties. In that way, parties become susceptible to disinformation as a tool to iron out negative perceptions about what they stand for.     

- Ralph Mathekga is a senior researcher at UWC's Centre for Humanities Research, and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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