As jockeying for votes intensifies in the run-up to the elections, the political language used by Gwede Mantashe, ANC secretary-general, and other political leaders can be perceived as personal attacks, says the writer. Picture:Matthews Baloyi

Snakes, tokoloshes and devils. Words are heating up as the poll nears, writes Marianne Merten.

 Devils, witches, war rooms and factory faults. The saying goes that while sticks and stones can break bones, words will never hurt.

But on a high-paced election campaign trail, the impact of words uttered in the heat of the vote-seeking moment, or by shrewd political calculation, can not be underestimated. Neither can claims to be walking with God, or ruling until Jesus returns when four out of five citizen are religious, according to StatisticsSA.

South Africa’s political language is robust. It is a complex mix of bluster, bluntness and cheekiness, which reflects South Africans’ noisy engagement with constitutional democracy. But there is a dark side on the campaign trail, and beyond.

The often not-so-quiet whispering campaigns against individuals, be they trade unionists, political office holders, activists or those in rival ruling party factions jockeying for dominance, frequently become blunt tools to settle political scores.

Dr Ibrahim Saleh, convener of the University of Cape Town’s political communication programme, says politics for many is complicated, dull, distant and often requiring substantial knowledge for understanding.

Thus metaphors are a convenient means for political elites and ordinary citizens to render the complexities of politics as easy-to-understand narratives of conflict and physical aggression.

“But the real danger comes from the fact that metaphors are more than just rhetorical flourishes: they actively shape how people think about social interactions and make social judgements,” Saleh says. “A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public (sphere) through a respectful and peaceful approach, but vigorously and without apologies.”

ANC leaders seem largely to have escaped labelling; opposition politicians have long been called anything from tea girl to cockroach, or even the harbinger of the return of apartheid.

Recently ANC elections campaign chief, Public Enterprise Minister Malusi Gigaba, described the DA as “the devils themselves” during a government-citizens engagement in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township.

Subsequently Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, in reference to the Western Cape DA government said: “These witches are oppressing us, they are trampling on us. Where are the tokoloshes and the (sangomas) so that we can chase these witches away?”

However, in the past couple of weeks, DA leader Helen Zille politically appropriated ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s Eastern Cape election trail comments that attacks on President Jacob Zuma were like efforts to crush a snake’s head to immobilise the rest of its body – and thus the head needed to be protected. Zille has adapted this to tell the party faithful in Soweto, and more recently in Kroonstad in the Free State: “When you vote you have a choice between a snake, which is the ANC, or a ladder, which is the DA.”

Meanwhile, labour federation Cosatu last month announced its “Operation Mayihlome (prepare for battle)”, with national and provincial “war rooms” to mobilise support among the fractured federation of 2.2 million paid-up workers for the governing party.

While sometimes used like a sledgehammer, the language of politics also relies on nuance, not only on the election trail, but other public platforms politicians may share, or for that matter in parliamentary debates.

Most recently it has been the turn of Ronnie Kasrils – a “factory fault”, according to South African Communist Party (SACP) leader Blade Nzimande, for heading the “Vukani! Sidikiwe! Vote No! (Wake up! We are fed up!)” campaign to spoil votes or strategically vote for opposition parties in protest against government corruption and maladministration.

Referring to Zuma as “Nxamalala”, or any other (usually male) political leader by clan name, plays on a culture of respect resonating with millions of South Africans. In contrast, referring to DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko as “mntana wam” (my child in Xhosa) in an institution where everyone is “The Honourable” at all times, subtly but effectively puts her in her place.

In the run-up to the 2002 ANC Stellenbosch conference, comrades labelled “ultra-leftist” by other comrades were for all intents and purposes relegated to the political outfield. Today being called “oppositional” is like having to wear a scarlet letter, while being described a “free agent” is often used to diminish critique, no matter how relevant.

National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, who leaves public politics after 20 years in the cabinet, has been labelled thus over his urging prompt action to implement the public protector’s findings regarding the R215 million security upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. So has Cosatu founding member Jay Naidoo, who served as RDP minister in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet.

In a recent Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) study of intimidation and manipulation of voters in the electoral processes in the run-up to the 2014 poll, researcher David Bruce argues that a multiplicity of factors could motivate a citizen into conforming with the dominant attitude, behaviour and political preferences – even if their views are different.

“People’s economic vulnerability is an important factor exploited by those involved in intimidation in South Africa,” argues Bruce. “The prevailing political culture obviously is also important. Messages conveyed by political leaders may promote a climate of intolerance to opposition parties by demonising them, or may foster the idea there is an obligation on people to support the dominant party, even if nothing is said which directly implied that people, who associate with opposition parties, will face any adverse consequences.”

Thus questions arise from KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture MEC Meshack Radebe’s recent reported comments: “There are people, who are stealing them (grants) by voting for opposition parties. If you are in the opposition, you are like a person who comes to my house, eats my food and then insults me.”

Bruce says more affluent South Africans can freely express their political views, especially if they dovetail with constitutional values, but this may not be quite the case for poor South Africans. “There is good reason to believe that in many parts of poorer South Africa people do not feel that they have the same freedom,” he says.

According to Saleh, rhetoric has evolved to be media-savvy and in tune with evolving electioneering methods.The simpler the slogan, the faster people absorb it, transmit it and the less likely they are to really think about it. “Many citizens seem comfortable wishing physical harm on their political opponents and they willingly endorse intimidation through name calling,” he says, adding this is a major challenge to representative government.

There are no empirical studies on what, if any, consequences political rhetoric has, or may have on citizens’ political behaviour at and beyond election times. But Saleh argues it would be incorrect to regard citizens as passive or “victims of arbitrary communication effects”: most times rhetoric and labelling works because it boosts the strength of pre-existing predispositions – and the need to label others typically emerged from insecurity and despair about one’s situation.

When are words just salty political fun-poking and when do utterances cross the line into potential intimidation, and the undermining of democratic governance?

Much depends on the consistency of censure to rein in political motormouths. But often, on the 2014 election campaign trail and other political platforms, it can be a trade-off between principle and political gain.

So, ANC national executive committee member, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, spoke up to reject as “sexist”, Congress of South African Students’ description of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela as “that woman with the big, ugly nose” following the release of the Nkandla report.

But ANC Youth League national convener Mzwandile Masina’s labelling of “Vote No!” campaigner, ex-deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, as a “hoe” on social media only had the league meekly “distancing” itself from its leader’s comments.

The preamble of our constitution, which elected public representatives swear to uphold, states that South Africans, through “freely-elected representatives” will “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights (and) lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by the law”.

In the final electioneering daysis it not time to jettison linguistic point-scoring for political power by any means necessary?

* Marianne Merten is the senior political correspondent for Independent Newspapers.

Political Bureau