Raymond Joseph Where does the Democratic Alliance get its facts?

You would think that a political party that regularly boasts about its successes on Twitter would have the evidence to back up the claims. That seems not to be the case with SA's Democratic Alliance.

As South Africa gears up to go to the polls, electioneering by political parties is in full swing and Twitter is shaping up as one of many fronts in the battle for hearts, minds and votes.

No party is more social media savvy than the Democratic Alliance (DA), with its leader, Western Cape premier Helen Zille, something of a ninja on Twitter, using the micro-blogging platform to vigorously debate, campaign and argue with critics.

It is not surprising then that the DA has been making good use of its Twitter account and 60,000 followers as an inexpensive campaigning channel. It regularly fires off claims of delivery successes in the Western Cape, the only one of South Africa’s nine provinces that it controls. Unfortunately, few of the claims are presented with any links to supporting evidence.

Africa Check – which is assessing claims by South African political parties in the run-up to the May 7 national elections – asked me to dig a little deeper to verify the accuracy of some of the tweets and assess the evidence the DA had to support them.

Where is the evidence?

A file photograph of South Africa's Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille leading a protest march in Johannesburg. Photo: AFP/Alexander JoeYou would expect that a political party using a public platform to promote its successes would ensure that it has the necessary evidence to back up its claims.

I telephoned Zille’s spokesman, Zak Mbhele, on November 25 last year and followed up the call with a detailed email requesting the sources and supporting material for a dozen claims that the party had made on Twitter.

Somewhat naively, it is now clear, I wrote in the email: “It should be [a] simple [task] and not take a lot of time since, I take it, the research was done and the info checked before it was posted on Twitter – and I also take it, the info is readily available in the event of queries like this one.”

The DA’s claims included tweets stating that the Western Cape government created 60,000 “work opportunities” in the second half of 2012/13; that DA municipalities have created 31,000 “job opportunities” in the past year;  that 99.1% of households in the Western Cape have access to piped water; that 93.4% have access to electricity; that 96.9% have access to toilet facilities; that the City of Cape Town – the provincial capital – delivers more to poor residents than any other city in the country; that the gap between haves and have nots is the smallest in Cape Town; and that R11-billion – of the R18-billion spent on service delivery in Cape Town –  was spent on the poor.

‘Not DA information’

Two months after that first phone call I had made no progress, despite firing off several emails to Mbhele who consistently failed to meet his own self-imposed deadlines to provide me with the source material.

In one email, Mbhele tried to explain away the delays.“The reason for the unfortunate delay is that technically it’s not ‘DA information’ that’s been requested … I’ve been trying to source and collate the information from the City of Cape Town and relevant provincial government departments.”  (Both the City of Cape Town and the provincial government departments are run by DA administrations)

In desperation, Mbhele eventually resorted to doing his own retrospective research.

Referring to the tweet claiming that 60,000 “work opportunities” had been created by the Western Cape provincial government in the 2012/2013 financial year, he wrote: “Concerning the job opportunity figures, no one so far can give me anything concrete…My own online search efforts have tracked down EPWP [Extended Public Works Programme] reports for the first half of 2012/13…but not the second half as the tweet speaks to.”

In the ‘right ballpark’

A screen grab of some of the claims made on Twitter by the Democratic Alliance.Those reports, he said, showed that the figure given in the DA’s tweet was in the “right ballpark”. But whether the exact figure was correct and where it was sourced from, he couldn’t say.

In a bid to address other questions, Mbhele sent me two Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) census documents from 2011,  two Western Cape government quarterly reports, copies of UN-Habitat reports on the state of the world’s cities and a smattering of Internet links that he had discovered in the course of his online research.

The two census documents, for instance, do appear to support some of the tweets including the claim that 99.1% of Western Cape residents have access to piped water, that 93.4% of homes in the Western Cape have access to electricity and broad statement that  “The Western Cape delivers basic services best in South Africa”.

But these successes, which the DA touts as its own, do not reflect the already high level of delivery that the DA inherited in these areas when it wrested control of the province from the ANC in 2009.

Take for instance the DA’s claim that 99.1% of households in the province currently have access to piped water. That is true, according to the 2011 census data, if you include piped water inside dwellings, in yards, within 200 metres of dwellings and further than 200 metres from dwellings.

But can the DA solely lay claim to that as a success? And how much has the DA really achieved since it took control of the province?

Cherry-picking numbers

According to StatsSA’s annual general household surveys, 92.7% of Western Cape households had access to piped water “in a house or yard” in 2006, when the ANC was in power, dropping fractionally to 92.5% in 2012. (This can perhaps be attributed to the growth in the number of households in the province, although the change is statistically insignificant)

It’s a classic example of how cherry picking statistics stripped of context can tell one story, while other reliable data tells an entirely different one.

After a number of email exchanges, Mbhele made a startling admission: “By the time the information gets to being a DA tweet, it’s usually several stages down the pipeline of being passed around and referenced in different meetings and memos. One wouldn’t think so, but it can take time to track some of the info back to its original source.”

That someone at the heart of the DA provincial government, with the authority of the premier’s office behind him, was unable to get the source information and original data speaks volumes.

A ‘broken telephone’

Early in the new year Mbhele sent me another exasperated email. “I’m trying to get in touch with a freelance specialist researcher who is working with the Parliamentary Office that I’ve been told should hopefully give me exactly what I’ve been requesting. He’s still on break it seems.” Yet again, the information did not materialise.

The most damning admission came when Mbhele candidly admitted: “I must say that this exercise has been very useful on my side in identifying a clear systemic deficiency of information management, especially in the interface between the research and communication arms in the DA Parliamentary Office.

“… I’ve been trying to navigate a spider web of information flow and recordkeeping where it seems there’s been a degree of broken telephone playing out.”

Mbhele promised that he would “be writing to relevant colleagues to get that tightened up”, adding that the party’s inability to back up many of its claims “doesn’t put us in good stead for the upcoming election period”.

* On 12 February 2014, following the publication of this article, the DA provided Africa Check with a list of #DAdelivers Tweets and corresponding sources.  We subsequently published two reports fact-checking the DA’s claims. One asked if the Democratic Alliance really delivers. The other, if the DA’s Western Cape story was a “good story to tell”.

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Comment on this report

Comments 25
  1. By Knysna Keep

    There’s been massive misreporting in the Western Cape, particularly in the Garden Route. To question the DA, especially as a white person, is considered sacrilegious. I haven’t managed to get answers out of the DA in 32 months. In Knysna, where i stay, they outright lie in the media and are allowed to get away with it by a grumbling public who think to disagree is to support the ANC. I’m pleased to read your article. Thank you.

    Reply Report comment
  2. By Elisa

    I’m afraid that Zak Mbhele is little more than a mouthpiece for Zille. When trying to get data on how many animals were killed by the infamous “Bredell Cull”. It took about 6 months for Mbhele to get back to me to let me know that the DA does not, in fact, have a policy on animal welfare. I’m afraid I have lost a lot of faith in the DA – there is a huge gap between what they preach and what they do. But ain’t that politics.

    Reply Report comment
      • By shayne

        Will we read about research on the ANC claims before or after the elections? Will there also be articles on all the other parties. Or are you an ANC or EFF supporter using this platform to dicredit the DA before elections because more people have registered to vote this year than in previous. I live in a DA ward and it is a well run ward. Issues in the community are dealt with immediately and efficiently. Our councellors are hands on and effective. We are in KZN. DA clearly run things better and are more passionate than others to make a difference. Instead of criticising the DA and demanding they prove their claims why doesn’t the author get out from behind their desk and do some research and try to prove that the claims the DA make are false?

        Reply Report comment
        • By Africa Check

          Shayne, perhaps you should take a little time to go through the reports we have published on the site: https://africacheck.org/latest-reports/

          You will find that we have fact-checked claims by various organisations and public figures including the ANC, government ministers, president Jacob Zuma, provincial MECs and premiers. We will continue to do so.

          With regard to your last sentence, the first step in any fact-checking and verification process is to ask a simple question: “Where is the evidence to support the claim?” Logically, in this instance, the DA was asked what evidence they had to support various claims they had made on Twitter. (You can find our guide to fact-checking here: https://africacheck.org/how-to-fact-check/tips-and-advice/)

          The DA’s Zak Mbhele has conceded that there is a “clear systemic deficiency of information management” when it comes to the @DA_News tweets.

          Reply Report comment
  3. By Ivo Vegter

    Good job, Ray. I love sceptical reporting like this. Once myths, misrepresentations and spin are in the public domain, it is very hard to get them back out.

    I have some sympathy for Mbhele, since my own work involves a great many illustrative data points. I use some of the better ones repeatedly over time, and while I’m convinced that they were originally well-sourced, couldn’t always tell you where and when. Sometimes, I go back only to find the original source doesn’t exist anymore, or has become archived and hard to access.

    But then, I’m just one person. I don’t have a research department to do this for me and keep track of all the data I dig up for my columns. That is one reason I obsessively link to sources while I write.

    I’m pleased to see Mbhele takes the problem seriously. I’ve learnt something from this myself.

    Reply Report comment
  4. By peter lawton (@petermushroom99)

    I’m thinking that statements that ‘we have the most toilets’ or ‘the fewest bucket toilets’ or ‘more piped water’ etc is about the same as the national government’s pride in having the amazing mining industry, or the sophisticated banking sector, or the most tarred roads. The fact that it was conceptualized and developed by someone else 15-20-50 years ago is never acknowledged.

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  5. By Jems

    EPWP jobs aren’t “DA jobs” as EPWP is a national programme.
    Also, someone needs to dig deeper and investigate claims about amount of money spent in townships by the CoCT – the City administers many large funds (NDPG and others) that are intended to be TOP-UP investment in these areas: how much of the CoCT own revenue is reinvested in these areas?

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Jaco

    Thank you for a very informative and enlightening article. Is a legal requirement that political parties provide sufficient proof and/or documentation when making statements like that a far-fetched idea? I am asking this since such claims and statements, believe it or not, do have an impact on a voter’s political fancy. When a party says something which is untrue and a voter subsequently votes for that party does it not make our democratic character a farce? People in power based on lies? Just asking…

    Reply Report comment
  7. By Chris Potgieter

    Why is it that credit is given to posts by persons who lack the fortitude to do so under an own name? Let Knysna Deep place his proof of his statements under his real name and provide the links to what he is referring to.

    Reply Report comment
  8. By Peter Walsh

    As a die hard DA supporter it has been difficult accepting that the DA spin it just like the best of them. And having to have the DA debate with Raymond on a regular basis requires my A game or a guaranteed drubbing.

    – South Africa is facing massive challenges and democracy is a pre-requisite for all of us.
    – Holding all parties and all South Africans accountable for their actions will go a long way towards nation building.
    – My expectation of the DA is that they bring their A game as well.

    Having said that, as someone who travels SA extensively on an ongoing basis, and has seen for himself what corruption, collusion and cadre employment does to a province, would I want to live in a province not run / governed by the DA? Absolutely not.

    Reply Report comment
      • By Jim de Villiers

        I hope in the interests of informed debate you will now update the entire article, after analysis of the sources supplied by Mr Molteno. Clearly Mr Mbehle made a monumental stuff-up, and the DA should not escape criticism for pathetic communication management between the offices of the party and the government office of the Western Cape premier. I think if you are truly honest with yourself you will admit that you leapt at the opportunity presented by Mr Mbehle’s obvious lack of familiarity with the subject. But Africacheck now needs to look at the information supplied by Mr Molteno and determine whether or not the DA’s claims are in fact based on the facts. If he is right, Africacheck must in addition take steps to correct the perception created in the media around this matter. This is important to voters – you have started this, now you need to finish it!

        Reply Report comment
        • By Africa Check

          Jim, we will fact-check the DA’s claims and analyse the list of sources provided by Alex Molteno in a separate fact-check report.

          This blog is Ray Joseph’s account of his experience trying to obtain that source list.

          Zak Mbhele is not some low-level functionary in the DA. He is the official spokesman in the Western Cape Premier’s office and number five on the DA’s Western Cape list of candidates for the national Parliament. Clearly he believed he had the authority to deal with Joseph’s queries.

          Given his position in the DA and the Premier’s office and the amount of time he had to deal with Joseph’s queries, surely he would be able to source the information requested? If he felt he was unable to do so, why did he persist? Why did he not refer Joseph to a more appropriate person?

          Mbhele himself was quite clear in his emails that his efforts to find the information Joseph requested had been stymied by a “clear systemic deficiency of information management”.

          Reply Report comment
  9. By Alex Molteno - National Social Media Manager, Democratic Alliance

    The DA Twitter account is not managed from the Premier’s Office of the Western Cape, since to do so would be a conflation of party and state.

    The DA’s social media team at national head office has been running the #DAdelivers campaign on Twitter for around a year now. Its aim is to inform people of the DA’s delivery record in the places where we govern.

    The questions raised by Africa Check could have been answered swiftly if they had been directed to the DA in the first place. It is not clear why we never received any such query prior to reading the article on Africa Check.

    Here is a list of #DAdelivers Tweets queried by Africa Check with references to the source of each one.

    We strive for accuracy at all times because we believe that accuracy is crucial for our credibility. If Africa Check finds that any of these statistics are inaccurate, we will gladly rectify them.

    Reply Report comment
    • By Africa Check

      Thanks Alex. It is unfortunate that it took the publication of this article for the DA to eventually provide some of the information Ray Joseph requested.

      Joseph’s initial inquiries were directed to the DA provincial office in the Western Cape and he was subsequently referred to Zak Mbhele.

      Clearly Mbhele felt that he had the necessary authority to deal with the matter. He attempted to obtain the information from the DA, but his efforts were ultimately frustrated by what he described as a “clear systemic deficiency of information management, especially in the interface between the research and communication arms in the DA Parliamentary Office”.

      That said, we will certainly approach you directly in future with queries about DA tweets and we appreciate your commitment to ensuring accuracy.

      While it may sometimes be difficult to include links to source material in 140 character tweets, we would argue that it is essential to the credibility of the tweets to do so.

      Reply Report comment
  10. By Cameron

    The best comment on this story was an earlier one – and it is here that the true benchmark of the DA governed Western Cape lies – looking at the state of the provinces, where would you rather live? The difference between Cape Town and Johannesburg OR Durban is IMMEDIATELY apparent from the minute you land. No matter that stats, no matter the spin, the eyes do not lie – and the DA, while clearly not perfect, is one. Hell of a lot better than anything else I’ve ever seen in South Afirca. They’ll get my vote every time.

    Reply Report comment
  11. By Kgadi

    As much as eyes do not lie, it’s also a fact who worked and sacrificed for us the PDI’s to be here too Day. To have the right to vote and put someone in charge of service delivery. To even start talking about the plight of the poor. To fight for equality in terms of access to education, health, basic services. Commitment to these has been inherited today by those who alll if sudden want my vote which is a disgrace to me. I will not change my colors today, once ANC always ANC. No amount of accusations are going to change. Especially that the same people grand stand and call us all corrupt without a thought about those of us who are not corrupt.

    Reply Report comment

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