Promises, promises . . .

15th October 2021 By: Martin Zhuwakinyu - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

Someone once remarked that football matches are the most heated contests in much of Africa. But in today’s environment, where most countries are doing their best to at least be seen to be abiding by democratic precepts, that distinction, I dare say, belongs to elections to public office.

As I write, Mzansi is in the midst of electioneering, which kicked off in earnest in early September, when the highest court in the land dismissed a petition by the Independent Electoral Commission to have this year’s municipal elections postponed to next year on the grounds that freeness and fairness would be compromised by the need to observe Covid-19-related restrictions.

Campaigning for the November 1 poll – by both wannabe councillors and the political parties sponsoring them – has been a robust affair, with rivals engaging in mudslinging. Watching some of them on the campaign trail, I couldn’t help recalling a Facebook post from Kenyan law professor and anticorruption crusader PLO Lumumba. Better known for his pan-Africanist views, Lumumba wrote in March this year: “In Japan, a corrupt person kills himself. In China, they will kill him. In Europe, they jail him. In Africa, he will present himself for election.”

Such a damning view aligns with the widespread belief that corruption is endemic in African politics. A 2019 Transparency International survey of 47 000 respondents from 35 countries on the continent, for example, found that more than one in three respondents were convinced that public office bearers had no qualms about using their positions to enrich themselves. The survey found the folk in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to be the most concerned, with 79% telling researchers they suspected most, if not all, DRC Parliamentarians were corrupt. In second position were the Gabonese, 71% of whom viewed most public representatives as characters who would not hesitate to ask for bribes. South Africa ranked tenth; the perception that politicians are corrupt was shared by 44% of the respondents from this country.

I do not quite agree with Lumumba and the 44% of the South African respondents in the Transparency International survey that African politicians – or at least some of them – are venal in the literal sense of the word. But, on the evidence from the current election season, it would not be inaccurate to suggest that some of them are prepared to engage in some form of unscrupulousness. Take the red meat rhetoric from one of the political parties that will be contesting the elections (I’m not naming and shaming anyone!): it will tax wealthy individuals to subsidise the poor and will provide social grants for the indigent at municipal level, blah, blah, blah. I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that only national government can do these things. But what’s the big deal if this may dupe some among the electorate into voting for you?

In all fairness, other parties are making extravagant promises too. I notice that, this time around, a couple of the parties are using the term ‘commitments’ – not promises or pledges. One wonders if they actually believe their own lies or simply take voters for granted.

An observation I have made, from reading newspapers from across the continent, is that, in most countries, politicians roll into villages and townships in the lead-up to election day, never to be seen again until the next election. One hopes that those who will emerge victorious on November 1 will behave differently. Even if they fail to deliver on their promises – nay, commitments – they must be seen to be trying. One way of showing that is spending as much time as possible among the people – getting to know their issues and conveying them to those who can bring about positive change.