As the campaign period comes to an end, it is likely that polarising and divisive political party propaganda and partisan party specific messaging may begin to continue propounding mis and dis-information. It is important for voters to know about them.

The first, is that the opinion polls (and much of the media) appears to be covering the 2021 municipal election as if it were national/provincial election, especially when it comes to the issues at stake. The opinion polls provide the aggregate pattern of support spread for different political parties. The contest is cast largely as a referendum on the governing ANC and more importantly – President Cyril Ramaphosa’s – and that of the ANC and other political parties performance in the 2024 national elections (never mind that the national/ provincial election has to be held under a different electoral system from both the current local government mixed PR and constituency system; and the National / Provincial PR electoral system, following the Constitutional Court Judgement of 11 June 2020).

The casting of the 2021 local government election as a national one is misleading. There are in fact 257 separate elections – eight (8) in metropolitan municipalities, two hundred and five (205) local municipalities and forty-four (44) district municipalities – each with their own particularities and specificities in terms of issues, demographics, development, social dynamics and party support patterns.

But this is by no means the most egregiously misleading misinformation. Campaign messages which serve to mislead voters, are. It is essential for voters to be able to separate fact from fiction.

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at UCT and the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI), have been tracking trends on social media. The data is sourced from Twitter and is publicly available in real time. The analysis includes a process of verifying a random sample of comments by an online crowd who assess the posts for authenticity and sentiment.  The analysis and the interpretations derived from the data are not exhaustive, or generalisable to the population. Although some of it is speculative, it nevertheless indicates and illustrates sentiment and may be of interest to stakeholders as the elections draw close. In this regard three instances of misleading information were identified as potentially corrosive of electoral integrity.

Misinformation and Disinformation

A typical example of generalised misinformation would be online posts like: “If you don’t vote, your vote will be wasted and will go to the governing party”, as was claimed by a tweet from the Democratic Alliance (DA). This is being used to cajole potentially disillusioned voters of a political party who could potentially punish the incumbent in power.

There is no evidence that not voting will always ensure that the current majority party will be advantaged, or that a vote for a small party or independent candidate will be a wasted vote.

Of course – it is self-evident that if potential voters of a specific party will not turn up to vote, it will hurt the party who they potentially support. This axiom is also not generalisable for a local government election where specific local municipal dynamics of party support patterns matter. What is true is that in a semi-proportional electoral system such as the one used at the municipal level in South Africa – the staying away of potential voters of a specific party will show up the proportion of other contesting parties as larger – by virtue of proportionality – and consequently reducing the overall number of votes cast, thus increasing the margin for the party whose voters do turn up to vote for it, irrespective of whether it is the current incumbent or not. This does not necessarily require a shift of votes to other parties. This situation happened in the 2016 municipal elections in the Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay metros.

As the political scientist Larry Joseph Sabato noted in his volume “Pendulum Swing” – “every election is determined by the people who show up”.

Similar attempts at misinformation were detected in posts saying those who choose not to vote had no right to complain.

The IEC itself repeated the canard, and became a purveyor of misinformation that “if you don’t vote you lose the right to complain”.  While it is the IEC’s mandate to lure voters, promote and encourage voter participation and voter turnout, it cannot do so on the basis of scaremongering. Voting is a right and a responsibility, but citizens may choose whether to exercise this right or not.

Voting is a democratic right, but citizens may choose whether to exercise this right or not. Citizens who choose not to vote do not forfeit any of their rights, and their rights cannot be diminished or diluted in any way. Not voting does not negate other rights, especially the right to demand governmental performance and responsiveness. All rights are constitutionally guaranteed, separate and exist independently of the vote and its exercise. Not exercising one right does not negate others. Not voting does not negate or nullify the right to expect high-quality service delivery, accountability or responsiveness from public servants and politicians. These rights are available to all, irrespective of whether they vote or not.

Then there is the disinformation that forms a part of the campaign rhetoric of political parties. Both, ActionSA’s Herman Mashaba and the Good Party of Patricia de Lille, tried to lampoon the Democratic Alliance, after a leaked 2019 interview with Helen Zille of the DA made the media rounds in which Helen Zille discussed a possible coalition with the ANC if the DA were a party that settled on 20% of aggregate national support and the ANC was brought down to below 50% of support. Zille claimed that the recording had been edited and taken out of context to sabotage the party during election season, bit reiterated that while the party was open to discussing coalitions, the party was working hard to win outright majorities.

But ActionSA’s suggestion that a vote for the DA is a vote for the ABC is patently false.

The Good Party’s claims are spurious and hypocritical – in the sense that a vote for one party is not a vote for any other party. And an expression for the desire for suggesting that you’d work with a party is not a vote for that party. In any event, the Good leader is already working with the ANC, by serving as Minister of Public Works in an ANC Government, unless the Good party is suggesting that working with the ANC is its exclusive preserve.

By Ebrahim Fakir, Molebogeng Mokoka and Euston Witbooi

Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI) and on the SABC panel of election analysts. Molebogeng Mokoka is journalist and Euston Witbooi researcher at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at UCT