No investigation into ANC-themed government ads

A building wrap with the Gauteng government advert. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

A building wrap with the Gauteng government advert. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

A slew of government advertising in what looks like ANC colours across Gauteng is likely to continue, as both the public protector and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has declined to investigate the matter.

The public protector's office conducted a preliminary investigation into the matter earlier this year but told the Mail & Guardian in February that it declined to investigate, handing the matter over to the IEC. 

"The public protector based her decision on the fact that the IEC is already seized with the matter," public protector Thuli Madonsela's spokesperson Kgalalelo Masibi told the M&G at the time. "The public protector is overloaded and is dealing with a backlog. The IEC is also a competent body with powers to investigate the complaint."

Now the IEC also declined to investigate the matter, saying it did not have the power to do so.

"Essentially, the commission came to a conclusion that on a proper interpretation of the powers and competencies granted to it by the Constitution and the relevant electoral legislative enactments, the commission does not have the power to investigate the complaint referred to it by the Freedom Front Plus [FF+]," IEC spokesperson Kate Bapela told the M&G on Friday. 

Confusing referral
A senior figure at the IEC has previously told the M&G that the referral of the matter from the public protector to the IEC was puzzling, as the IEC did not have the authority to investigate government matters: only party matters. The public protector would have been the best placed institution to investigate possible abuse of state funds to the ruling ANC's advantage, said the senior staff member. 

The FF+ and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) have both made complaints about the matter, the latter to the public protector's office, which was referred to the IEC. 

The remaining routes to investigate the advertising campaign are few: opposition parties could choose to go the legal route, but would be pressed for time and resources so close to the May 7 election date, after which the issue would become irrelevant. 

One remaining avenue is the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). 

But the head of legal and regulatory affairs at the ASA, Fred Makgatho, has explained that the organisation is reactive and needs to wait for a complaint to be lodged before acting on any particular matter.

He noted that an important consideration in such a matter was "to determine whose commercial interests are being served". Section 4 of the advertising code prohibits advertising "likely to mislead the consumer".

Questions that need answers
The campaign, worth millions of rands, features billboards, street-pole adverts and building wraps trumpeting the work of various Gauteng departments. The adverts, in the ANC colours of green and gold with black writing, started appearing across Johannesburg in October.

If an investigation into the advertising campaign does take place, a number of questions will have to be answered, such as:

  1. Was public money used to fund a government campaign that opposition parties maintain was masquerading as an ANC campaign ahead of the 2014 election?
  2. Were funds that were diverted from other provincial departments in October used to fund the campaign? At the time, an undisclosed amount of funding was reallocated to the province's public relations and communications "because they didn't have money". This decision was made at an internal meeting in October, according to a source within the premier's office.
  3. Was money from the R37-million that was allocated to Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane's office late last year "for preparations towards 20 years of our democratic system" used for the campaign? This amount was part of a budget adjustment of R3-billion announced by the Gauteng government in November, specifically to "provide effective public services to the people".
  4. Was money from both these sources used to fund the advertising campaign?

Instead of using the Gauteng government's signature colour palette of blue, gold and grey, the adverts, some as large as 10 storeys high, are boldly branded in the ANC's colours.

"The colours that are used for all our campaigns, including this, are drawn from our corporate identity colour palettes," the chief director of public relations within the premier's office, Janine Julies, said in a written response to questions from the M&G for an article in January this year.

Primary and secondary colours
Julies listed the province's usual colours of "gold", "aqua blue pantone" and "grey" as its primary colours, along with secondary colours of yellow, green, red, brown, grey and black.

But the source in the premier's office said there were no additional corporate colours. "It's always been blue and grey and gold."

A document on corporate identity on the province's website notes that blue "should be used as the primary colour when designing communications materials".

The 51 advertising billboards were put up at a cost of over R2-million a month of public money, according to an article in Beeld in November. Continental Outdoor Media, which hires out the advertising space, told the newspaper that it costs between R40 000 and R50 000 a month per board, which works out to about R2.3-million a month excluding the printing costs of about R10 000 a plate.

The province's departments of health, infrastructure and community safety, as well as human settlements and housing, all transformed their buildings in the Johannesburg central business district using building wraps, most celebrating their respective achievements.

A good story to tell
A series of street-pole advertisements dots the M1, and there are billboards on major roads, with one just before Corlett Drive on the M1 North declaring that "1.1-million learners receive a meal in our schools", attributed to the province's education department.

The tone of the campaign falls squarely within the ruling ANC's 2014 election campaigning theme, appearing since late last year under the tag line: "We have a good story to tell."

The ANC insisted that the Gauteng campaign was well within its rights to use the colours in question. "The bottom line is this is an ANC government," party national executive committee member Lindiwe Zulu told the M&G in Nelspruit ahead of the party's manifesto launch in January. "We are in charge [and] we are responsible at the end of the day."

She said the colours were not exactly the same: "The green is different from the ANC green, the yellow is not gold and there is no black."

The premier's office said the campaign was produced in-house and was budgeted for in the 2013/14 financial year. Though it said the campaign began in the latter part of 2011, previous posters were predominantly in the province's traditional blue, gold and grey palette.

But according to experienced graphic designer Grant Patrick, the colour palette as produced by the province to justify the sudden use of green and yellow in its branding doesn't make sense. He added: "A good complementary colour for aqua blue would be more of an orange rather than green and yellow."

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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