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Voters’ choice and future governments: fact-checking in election season

Fact-checking is a relatively new but growing endeavour in South Africa. No, we’re not like traditional journalists. We don’t report on speeches, rallies or press statements. We check if what political parties say is true. We verify if they have evidence to back up what they say.

Africa Check was established in 2012 at the Wits Journalism Department in South Africa. We also have fact-checking units in Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal doing the same work.

South Africans will vote on 8 May 2019. Africa Check has spent the last four months fact-checking the top three political parties election manifestos. It is not easy or quick work.

Our first step is always to contact the political parties and ask for the evidence they’ve based their claims on. Once we have this we compare it to the most recent and reliable research on the topic.

We then speak to experts and academics for context or analysis. We reach a verdict and then send it back to the political parties. We tell them what we found, we tell them why and we ask if they would like to comment. This can take three hours, three weeks or three months.

Political parties do get it right

Our aim is not to find errors and out people for getting their numbers wrong. We often find that political parties have their facts right - and we say so.

This year the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) claimed in its election manifesto that government had “invested more than R2 trillion in infrastructure projects over the past 10 years to build more schools, clinics, roads and the freight logistics network”. They were right. Treasury figures put the exact figure at R2.3 trillion.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) had its facts straight too when it claimed that “youth unemployment [in South Africa] is amongst the highest in the world”. While country comparisons of youth unemployment data have limitations, the available data does put South Africa among the worst performers. In 2018 the International Labour Organization estimated that South Africa had the highest unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds: a staggering 53%.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were also in the green when they claimed that “close to 40% of South Africans who need jobs are unemployed”. Almost 9.8 million people – or 37.7% of the labour force – were unemployed according to the expanded definition of unemployment.

Don’t muddy the water with false information

We give credit where credit is due but we’re quick to point out when political parties get it wrong.

Land and its redistribution is a key election issue this year. It is important that political parties do not muddy the waters or mislead voters with incorrect information.

The EFF was incorrect when it claimed that “the post-1994 governments have cumulatively bought less than 7% of the targeted 30% of land meant for redistribution”. The government has bought 6.7% of South Africa’s total land. But this is also a third of the land initially targeted for redistribution.

The DA’s claim that “the national government’s failure rate of land reform projects is currently standing at 92%” is baseless. There has been no national audit or study of the success or failure of land reform projects in South Africa. This statistic has been recycled and reprinted for years without anyone checking if it is based on rigorous research.

It was incorrect for the ANC to claim that “since 1994, over 4.7 million free houses have been built”. Government housing statistics show this isn’t true. Just under 3.3 million housing units were built between 1994 and December 2018. The figure of “over 4.7 million” refers to “housing opportunities”, which include serviced sites without an actual dwelling.

Facts matter - especially during election season

Why does Africa Check fact-check election manifestos? There are a couple of reasons.

At election time voters have to make a decision about their future. This decision may be based on personal preference or ideology but it’s also based on the information political parties share. Facts matter and they matter even more during election season.

The second reason is more abstract but equally important. It’s about policy.

The three political parties before us today are competing to govern South Africa. Should they win they will take their facts and misperceptions into government.

South Africa faces serious problems on a number of fronts. To solve them, any government will need an accurate understanding of these problems. A wrong understanding of how much land has been redistributed, how successful land reform projects have been or how many houses have been built could have serious policy implications.

Misconceptions could send us down the wrong road and waste valuable resources. We need our government and its officials to be well informed. The wrong information won't help us make the right decisions.

Taking active steps to combat false information

Misinformation, propaganda and fake news have become a global issue. It has never been easier for false information to travel so quickly and widely. We must take active steps to combat false information. We each have a role to play.

Political parties and politicians need to commit to getting their facts right. This means investing in research. It also means issuing corrections when they get it wrong. Political parties hold enormous power and should use it with extreme care.

Journalists need to fact-check politicians - not just report what they say. The media should not simply act as a loudhailer, amplifying misinformation. They need to do the hard work of checking and contextualising information.

The public also has an important role to play. It is an integral cog in social media and the online space. We all need to take care to not share and retweet information that may be incorrect.

The challenges are immense. We likely won't overcome them this election or the next. But by working together - and holding each other accountable - we can tackle misinformation and improve accuracy in public debate.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Kate Wilkinson at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on 25 April 2019.


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