While it’s said politics requires some “economy with the truth”, is anyone – including African political parties – interested in actual facts anymore?
Political parties will say a lot to get ahead. And at Africa Check we strain sinews to keep up with them, though it can often feel like plugging a leak with a sponge.
Only the most cynical would think political parties by their nature are primed to be permanently at odds with facts and accuracy. But there is wide acceptance by many societies that politics generally requires some “economy with the truth”.
The misrepresentations take various forms, both benign and malign, as we regularly discover in our fact-checking work in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
First, there are parties that make clever-worded statements that on the surface sound sensible. But peel back a layer or two and things get a bit more interesting.
Take the recent municipal elections in South Africa. With frequent blackouts, euphemistically referred to as “loadshedding” by those charged with keeping the lights on, it was no surprise that electricity featured in many manifestos.
Take the Democratic Alliance, the country’s second-largest party. “If you live in DA-run Cape Town, you already experience fewer blackouts. The Steenbras Hydro-electrical Power Scheme has reduced load shedding times compared to municipalities not run by the DA,” it purred.
The party prides itself on its record governing the Western Cape province, so much so that its manifesto was titled “A record of action, and a promise of more.”
The Upper Steenbras dam in the port city of Cape Town has four turbines that generate 160 megawatts of the increasingly rare commodity. City officials say residents have been spared tens of hours of loadshedding during the year, strengthening the DA’s claim of being a model government.
If the “conditions are appropriate” and there is “spare capacity”, the Western Cape government says, “most City customers will likely continue to be protected from stage 1 and 2 of Eskom’s loadshedding”. Eskom is the country’s much-excoriated power utility.
There’s a slight problem with this claim: short of its geographical location, the operation of the dam generally has little to do with the party, a point exasperated-sounding energy analysts were at pains to make. Others were kinder, however, attributing the station’s maintenance work to the city.
Political rivals’ tit-for-tat in Nigeria
The claims to greatness do not stop there. Earlier in the year Nigeria’s two main parties treated the country to a mud fight that left neither looking any cleaner. The trigger was exiting Twitter chief Jack Dorsey’s perceived snub, given Nigeria is the continent’s largest economy, in choosing Ghana for its Africa headquarters.
The antagonists were the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the party it ousted from office in 2015, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Nigeria’s status as Africa’s biggest economy was achieved under president Muhammadu Buhari, trilled the APC.
The only problem was, Nigeria’s economy was rebased – the fancy thing that countries do to account for the changing structure of their economies – before Buhari took office in May 2015.
Back came the PDP, countering that under the APC, Nigeria had become the “world poverty capital”.
The gaping hole in this argument is that poverty in Nigeria is due to the actions of successive governments since the country’s independence in 1960. “It’s a trend; you can’t single out one regime,” one economist told us.
The APC would a few weeks later suspend Twitter after the social media platform miffed it again by deleting one of Buhari’s tweets.
Exaggeration and outright lies
Then there are the exaggerators. Kenyan billionaire Jimi Wanjigi divides opinion in the country, but this has not deterred him from casting a covetous eye on the presidency. Kenya votes for a new president in August 2022 with the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta set to depart.
In his first at-length media interview about his ambitions, Wanjigi set about outlining his vision. But he could not resist sending a few barbs the way of Kenyatta, whose government he has since fallen out with.
“If you look at the growth patterns, the Kibaki period was phenomenal. We went from a negative 1% [growth rate under] Moi.” Mwai Kibaki is Kenyatta’s predecessor, while Daniel arap Moi ruled Kenya until 2002.
The essence of Wanjigi’s argument was that Kenyatta’s government was underperforming, but the available economic data did not bear him out. While Moi’s 24-year rule was marked by low growth, only in 1992 did the country see a contraction, at -7%.
And then there are the outright porkies. In its 2021 local election manifesto, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party promised that any municipalities it won would discontinue the private ownership of bulk water infrastructure.
Not to be left behind, the ruling African National Congress claimed that its municipalities would “reduce the current timeframes for mining licences by 50%”.
But only the minister of mineral resources has the authority to grant mining licences, with local governments, in the words of one expert, having “absolutely no role whatsoever to play in the issuing of mining rights” – something the party subsequently conceded to us.
Many other examples abound, begging the question: does accuracy in politics matter? Or are electorates instead steeled to expect whoppers anytime political parties talk? That is a question for another day.
With Kenya holding polls in 2022, Nigeria in 2023 and South Africa a year later, the claims will keep rolling in. And Africa Check will be there, wading through as many as we can catch as we seek to keep public debate accurate. Wish us luck!