OPINION: What’s a voter to believe?

Norman McFarlane

It’s election season once more, and now that our president has decreed the day on which we will get that once-in-a-five-year opportunity to have our say – Wednesday May 8 – the blandishments by political parties who want your vote are coming thick and fast.

With just on two months to go before we stand at that cardboard polling booth and execute that fateful decision – yes, your vote does matter – political parties will deploy every trick in the book to capture your ballot, but once the votes are counted and the winners decided, it will be back to that five-year long hiatus during which those we elect, largely ignore us and execute the mandate we have given them, as they see fit.

There are 285 parties registered with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), but only a small proportion of these will appear on the ballot paper, as they engage in battle for the much-coveted prizes of seats in the national and various provincial parliaments.

How the chips will fall on polling day has been the subject of fevered speculation – as much here as elsewhere – but that is tangential to the strategies and tactics the various parties deploy in an effort to snag your vote.

In an age of instant information and completely unregulated social media, how on earth do we pick our way through the maelstrom designed to beguile, to persuade, to compel, perhaps even to frighten us into placing our cross in a particular block on our ballot papers, come May 8?

We are still reeling from the allegations that emerged after the American presidential election which saw Donald Trump triumph, that the outcome had been pre-ordained by the concerted misuse of personal information on Facebook by shadowy political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, to manipulate the vote in favour of Mr Trump. The organisation was also fingered for playing a role in the referendum that saw the “Leave” faction triumph, dumping the United Kingdom into the political quagmire in which it currently wallows.

Cambridge Analytica is no more, but the investigations into these and other allegations of massive manipulation aimed at influencing election outcomes are ongoing.

Closer to home, the ANC’s “black ops room” caused the ruling party a great deal of embarrassment when allegations emerged after the 2016 local government elections, that it had spent some R50 million on putting out fake election posters, supposedly from opposition parties, delivered carefully crafted news sheets door-to-door, and even planted callers on talk radio phone-in shows.

The now defunct Bell Pottinger’s role in massive manipulation of public sentiment resulted in the notion of white monopoly capital, elevated racial animus, and arguably birthed the rabildy facist Black First Land First, which seems to specialise in race-baiting as its principal political tactic.

That white monopoly capital has gained the order of traction that it has, despite the clear understanding that it was invented by Bell Pottinger to favour its client, Oakbay Investments, is a measure of how damaging the disemmination of deliberately falsified information – fake news – can be.

But it’s not just fake news of which we need to be wary. What about content that, while it is not fake news, is deliberately crafted to influence public sentiment in a particular direction?

The recent war of words between the protagonists in “The De Lille Matter” is a case in point. Both sides did their level best to paint the other as the devil incarnate, with the citizenry sitting in the middle, dazed, confused and unsure what is the truth of the matter.

The fact that the whole thing died an almost immediate death, once Ms De Lille had departed the mayoral office and the DA, despite as yet untested allegations of massive malfeasance and countervailing allegations of victimisation, manipulated forensic reports and the trampling of constitutional rights, leaves both tainted with more than a whiff of dishonesty.

The EFF is also not immune to criticism for gratuitous manipulation of the facts in an effort to bolster its public image.

Once it lost its principal political target when Jacob Zuma was forced onto his sword by Cyril Ramaphosa, its claim to the political high ground dissolved in a maisma of race-baiting and knee-jerk populism, designed to – but failing miserably – keep it punching well above its weight in the media spotlight stakes.

All three of the major parties have by now told the electorate all about their election manifestos at well-covered public events, but how much of what they had to say was radically different from the last time they trotted out those by now tired policies, and more importantly, why should it be any different this time around?

Now is the time to seek the truth by demanding straight answers from politicians, and to fact-check every beguiling blandishment and suspect statement that emerge as polling day draws closer. Spend your vote wisely.