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20 September 2014 21:49 (South Africa)
Opinionista Justin McCarthy

The devaluation of Brand ANC

  • Justin McCarthy
Political parties rely on their brands as much as companies and products, and none have a stronger brand in South Africa than the ANC. But abuse and mismanagement mean that brand loyalty is eroding rapidly, with potentially disastrous results for the venerable liberation movement.

Most people, when asked to think about the term “brand”, will immediately default to product or service brands that they consume or interact with regularly. A cursory cross-section of South Africa would elicit top of mind brands like Koo, Sunlight, Vodacom, Coca Cola, Joko and Lucky Star. Brand relevance naturally varies widely from one social stratum to another. Iwisa and Zambuk are unlikely to feature highly on a Sandton housewife’s list. In the same way, Mercedes-Benz and Gucci will have little relevance to the woman tilling the soil on a smallholding in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal (unless of course a local MEC swans past in an E-Class).

The ANC is also a brand. If you included it in the annual Sunday Times’ Top 100 brands survey, I’d wager it would hit the top three. However, I have serious doubts about how long it will remain there. That’s because it’s no longer a well-managed brand - the only constant in recent years is its diminishing equity. Equity is the most important brand measure, as it’s capable of being quantified and thus valued. Equity is what sustains a brand through recessions and mistakes, competitor attacks and dynamic marketplace changes. It’s also one of the key measures a corporate buyer or seller considers.

In South Africa, the ANC brand is synonymous with government. It is brand equity that sustained the ANC through the 2004 and 2009 elections, even though it slipped in total voter support. A ripple of discontent accompanied the ousting of Thabo Mbeki, not so much because he was ousted, but by the manner in which it transpired. For the first time outside the hallowed halls and inner circles of the party, the voting public was exposed to dirty tricks, character assassinations, and scandalous political infighting. The ANC has always adopted a firm approach to internal conflict and discipline, instilled through necessity as an underground organisation where the perception of unity was paramount. That was a great deal simpler in the struggle era because a common enemy created a common purpose, and the ANC held the moral high ground. That common enemy is long gone, even though the scars at almost every level remain deep and severe.

In place of the common enemy is the party’s own mantra: a better life for all. It was an obvious but entirely appropriate campaign to light the rocky path from resistance movement to democratic government. But it has also become its Achilles’ heel. Today, millions of South Africans live that reality, but many more millions are still denied the promised land of milk and honey.

It is easy to be critical of the government of the past 18 years, but in truth insufficient attention is paid to its achievements. Such is the nature of politics, much as it is in business. Once in the hot seat the simplicities of criticism and theory evaporate rapidly in the white heat of stakeholder expectation. The demands can be overwhelming and the ability to prioritise seemingly impossible. A cursory glance through the modern history of democratic governments and private enterprise will show a column of failures considerably longer than a shortlist of successes.

One problem for the ANC is that the electorate doesn’t actually differentiate between the role of liberator and that of governor. The brand made a promise for 80 years that it is failing to deliver. There exists in any massive social transition a window of opportunity for the newcomer to get to grips with delivering on its promises. That window narrows considerably from one election to the next as two things happen – segments of the electorate whose dreams haven’t been realised become angry and cynical, and younger generations with no affinity to the past have increasing demands and expectations which aren’t met. It is in these domains that the ANC has failed the most. Promises quickly become empty rhetoric when the division of spoils appears unfair or uneven. There have been many spoils gained and shared by those in office, but few that have trickled deep down that pyramid. A free T-shirt doesn’t appease a hungry stomach or an unlit shack for very long.

There are many reasons the ANC is in the corner it’s in, but few of them are the result of external or uncontrollable influences. Ironically, in the arena of financial management during the most tumultuous period in the history of capitalism, government has performed admirably. Yet in so many other domains they get progressively worse, and more and more are found wanting. While politicians squabble over rank and title, elbowing one another in often public displays of immaturity and grotesque self-interest, the party’s and country’s president ignores public sentiment with an air of disdain. He’s unresponsive, incapable of taking a position on many key strategic challenges, arrogantly dismissive of criticism, massively compromised on policy and silent on national crises. Having escaped sanction through largely dubitable means in his first term, it is patently clear that his focus and energy is devoted to securing a second term in preference to dealing with issues of national importance, while adopting a blatant policy of cadre deployment to key strategic positions in public office. This is the same man who was widely billed as the people’s president, the charming and charismatic salve to the chafe of the calculating and aloof Thabo Mbeki.

It’s an indictment of Mr Zuma that history will judge him as the most influential figure in the downfall of the mighty ANC. While he is certainly not responsible for creating the scrambled egg of a party of which he inherited the leadership, he has repeatedly demonstrated a voracious appetite for arrogant and narrow self-interest, thus legitimising the malignant culture of corruption and entitlement that has blossomed on his watch.

When it comes to a cold assessment of its brand performance, the ANC is failing on so many levels that it could feasibly attain the previously unthinkable – the loss of absolute power.  Because of its powerful brand equity, South Africa’s electorate has been overwhelmingly acquiescent to the brand’s repeated failure to deliver. However, the umbilical cord that has been the defining symbiotic conduit between brand and loyal customer is rapidly congealing and constricting. Disenfranchised sectors of the electorate and a large, angry, and historically disinterested but politically active generation may just be shifting the iconic brand considerably closer to the tipping point. DM


  • Justin McCarthy
justin McCarthy

Justin is Irish born and raised in Africa. As a consequence you can take him out of the bush but you can’t extract the animal. He studied Anthropology and English at Wits, toured the world, and owned and operated two restaurants before committing to the deceptive allure of advertising.

An adman at heart, he’s never shy of an opinion or to throw it about with gusto. This extends beyond marketing and advertising to equally noisy and everyman opinion-steeped topics like politics and rugby. His commitment to freedom of expression is matched only by his enthusiasm for good food and wine.


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