Election posters fail to invigorate parties’ campaigns

Politicians should focus on forming coherent messages to invigorate their election campaigns, instead of fluffy slogans that do not address the priorities of the electorate, says the writer. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

Politicians should focus on forming coherent messages to invigorate their election campaigns, instead of fluffy slogans that do not address the priorities of the electorate, says the writer. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 15, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

For reasons I will not trouble you with, I missed the April 4 signing of the Electoral Code of Conduct event in Midrand, and the candidate speeches committing to abide by the rules meant to ensure free and fair elections.

Usually, that would be a cause for anxiety in a person as dedicated to election monitoring and observing the category-five drama associated with candidate certification as myself.

Something underwhelming is grabbing national attention.

From the headline-making decision of the Stellenbosch Municipality to remove the Rise Mzansi election posters to a newspaper front-page picture of a pile of ANC election posters at a park at the corner of Pretorius and End streets in Hatfield in Pretoria, political rivalry, ideological fervour, and sheer vandalism are suspects in the nationwide indiscriminate defacing and disappearance of election posters.

Political parties across the board have raised concerns and condemned acts of vandalism and theft, calling on the public and any authority that can help intervene. The DA said it had suffered tremendous losses and had to spend an enormous amount of time and money on maintenance work, which it claims has increased after other party posters have gone up.

The GOOD Party also said it was one of the first to put up posters, and they have seen them removed, damaged, or pushed down the poles.

This lack of tolerance is depriving South Africans of unique opportunities to effectively use critical messages in the election posters to inform and educate the electorate beyond empty slogans and about the substance of political promises that could encourage high voter turnout on election day.

We can discount the involvement of informal recyclers, or “waste pickers”, as the material used on election posters is not what they generally recycle, and they have, over the years, established that it would be a waste of time for them to pull down election posters for financial gain.

Whatever the sources of the problem are, the public expects posters of all parties and independents to hang on lampposts everywhere undisturbed.

Even in an era when politics struggles to connect with the electorate, the poster messages reach large audiences.

They stimulate the public’s interest.

They energise broader debate. They engage the voters, especially the young and the detached. Above all, they open the candidates to scrutiny as potential presidents, premiers, ministers or coalition partners.

Wait a minute. Many think big and small parties have wasted scarce money on achieving the seemingly impossible – making their candidates and political slogans look cool.

What if the evidence tells the opposite? What if, despite spending large amounts of money on posters, most parties did not dare offer a bolder set of pledges that are more than fluffy slogans? What if the evidence tells us that most parties are not offering various quantifiable programmes that may genuinely have excited the nation –measurable and time-based promises that demand a mandate?

Disappointingly, and in contrast to what we are accustomed to, in their present form, most posters are more of a vanity tool for influencing influencers, not communicating substance with the broader electorate.

Most of these posters cry out for parody and have been light on offering tangible policy issues that should set them apart. Instead, they reduce the parties to little more than social brands and beauty pageant personalities. Soon enough, politicians will learn that if you present your audience with fluff, you should not be surprised when they mock it.

Yes, once again, there is a considerable mismatch between poster messages, which are either vacuous or reheated, and the top 10 priorities of the electorate identified in several community surveys aimed at providing population and household statistics at the municipal level to government and the private sector to support planning and decision-making.

Most political parties will continue to make their out-of-sync points, such as when they omitted the demands of the youth for free and decolonised higher education in 2016, but not many will listen. This lukewarmness makes little sense since the choice of poster words often qualifies the already shallow promises out of existence.

That should concern civil society organisations such as the Election Monitoring Network, the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, and others conducting nationwide civic and voter education as building blocks to ensure a high voter turnout that should confer legitimacy on our democracy.

However, just because some poster messages are mismatched and boring does not mean these tools will not have the most significant impact they have ever had or that some faceless individuals should indiscriminately pull them down. The fact that several young supporters created some of the latest poster designs showcased during election manifesto launches of a handful of parties is a testament that, with more deliberate efforts to communicate effectively, individuals continue to hold the power to influence our political imaginations and decisions as much as giant PR corporations.

What on earth should politicians do about all this? To start, they should focus on forming coherent and inspiring messages to invigorate their campaigns. For example, the ANC’s posters have only successfully painted a picture of the nostalgic past without inspiration for a brighter future under its continued rule.

The DA’s posters scream contradictions and scaremongering about rescuing South Africa that comes from arsonists dressed as firefighters.

Part of the public’s readiness to ignore posters is because we feel that many politicians have made a mockery of us and their office in their lack of accountability and their propensity for corruption. We still feel let down by a political culture that cares more about media coverage than policy and the many scandals, including those involving state capture and Covid-19 personal protective equipment.

If politicians could start displaying and debating more credible politics to enrich the ingredients of the mandate they seek our votes for, we might take them more seriously.

The world is riding a communications revolution. At the same time, South Africa, like other advanced democracies, is living through a crisis of political trust and disengagement.

There is a compelling case, both for democracy and civic self-interest, for why these elections could still effectively harness the scale and interactivity of traditional and digital communication tools, the communication of visionary policy issues and strategies to involve citizens in building a better future to benefit us all.

South Africans should seize the opportunity with enthusiasm.

* Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

Cape Times