Disguised with fancy language, the real meaning of party manifestoes can escape the average person, says Dr Sarah Slabbert.
Johannesburg - With the national elections 10 days away, political parties are eagerly rallying to gather voters’ support with promises of a better South Africa, but the problem with the barrage of promises that parties make during the run-up to elections is that they are often dressed up for effect. Disguised with fancy language, their real meaning can escape the average person. The result: countless numbers of voters vote for parties not really knowing what they stand for.
Dr Sarah Slabbert from the Plain Language Institute says poor understanding of party manifestos and election promises says nothing about voter intelligence, but it speaks volumes of political parties’ communication competency.
“Certainly, parties’ election promises aim to entice people to vote for them. Promises to build houses, create jobs and cut taxes are good news for voters. Why wouldn’t anyone vote for a party that promises the types of things that are close to the heart of every hard-working and passionate South African? The question is, how many of these promises are little more than vague ideals? Voters need to ask themselves: ‘what am I really voting for’?”
Unfortunately, until political parties simplify how they speak to the public, voters aren’t easily going to find the answer to that because the language used in party manifestos can be just plain confusing. Slabbert cites some examples.
In the Economic Freedom Fighters’ manifesto, the party claims that its firm belief and conviction is that economic freedom will be attained through implementation of seven cardinal pillars. It also states that it advocates the expropriation of South Africa’s land without compensation for equal redistribution and use.
Slabbert asks: “This begs the question, how do you implement a pillar? And, why say ‘expropriation’ if you can say ‘taking’? Too blunt? When the EFF talks about expropriation of land for equal distribution, does it suggest taking all land without paying the current owners and then distributing it among all South Africans? Or does it mean that the state will take the land without paying for it and then tell South Africans that it belongs to all of them ‘equally’?
The EFF advocates a move from reconciliation to justice on the entire African continent. Is the EFF proposing that people in Africa should no longer try to reconcile, but should rather seek justice? Whose justice? And how should this happen?”
Slabbert moves on to the DA’s manifesto, which states that the party aims to ensure the appropriate devolution of responsibilities to capable provinces and municipalities to bring decisions as close as possible to the communities that are affected by them.
The DA also rejects programmes that facilitate crony enrichment and the manipulation of outcomes for the politically connected. It does not support any abuse of power by entrenched labour unions that perpetuates the divide between economic insiders and outsiders, and shields the employed at too great a cost to the unemployed.
“Once again, this can be construed as good news, but, realistically, how many South Africans understand what ‘appropriate devolution of responsibilities’ or ‘perpetuate the divide’ means? And what exactly are ‘entrenched labour unions’? And how do these labour unions abuse power to keep the politically connected in positions?”
Sparing no holy cows, she comments on extracts from the ruling party’s manifesto.
“The ANC promises to institutionalise long-term planning, integration and co-ordination capacity within the state to drive consolidated industrialisation and infrastructure development programmes for inclusive growth and job creation.
It also claims to want to “mobilise and leverage the active participation of all sectors in these bold initiatives. The private sector must actively contribute to inclusive growth, investment, social development and economic transformation”.
“On the face of it, this all sounds grand. But, what does it mean to ‘institutionalise long-term planning’ or ‘co-ordination capacity’? What are they suggesting? That the state had no capacity to co-ordinate before this election?
“If the ANC hopes to leverage the active participation of all sectors, what are the other sectors aside from the aforementioned private sector? The government sector is what we can surmise, but you have to ask, why does the ANC need to mobilise and leverage the government sector after the election? Weren’t they supposed to be doing that all along?”
On the overused promise to deliver “economic freedom”, Slabbert believes the parties that promise it would do well to define what it means.
“Does it mean the same thing for all parties? Does it mean free to sell your goods wherever you want to without restriction? Or does it mean everybody will have money? How much money? Where will this money come from?
“Can a voter who votes for ‘economic freedom’ expect to have a job handed to them or can they expect that they will become a citizen of a country where the state owns everything?”, she asks.
“As party manifestos are meant for the general public”, Slabbert says, “they should be written in clear and easy-to-understand language. At the moment, clearly, they are not. This suggests a concerning disregard of people’s right to receive information in plain, understandable language.
“A party’s manifesto is an official declaration of its opinions, intentions and motives, however, the complexity of language used in manifestos makes them ambiguous to the average person.
“Party candidates use, or should use them as the basis of speeches and other interaction with the general public. One cannot help but wonder what they make of these wordy documents and how many different interpretations of a party’s manifesto are as a result being dished up to us, ordinary South Africans.
“Voters have the right to protest and insist that politicians speak plainly and clearly.”
* These are the views of the Plain Language Institute.