South Africa

Johannesburg: The DA campaign’s urban blues

By Greg Nicolson 12 June 2012

The Democratic Alliance might look out of place in a taxi rank in downtown Joburg, but to win Gauteng in 2014 it needs one million new voters, so it’s bringing its campaign to the streets. Taking the province is crucial in its aim to win a national election, but not everyone is welcoming the groundwork. By GREG NICOLSON

DA youth leader Makashule Gana offered a youth wage subsidy flyer as pedestrians bustled down Johannesburg’s Small Street, a tunnel of stores in town. Two journalists watched, starved of pictures and usable quotes, as a handful of DA members distributed their pamphlets and took the odd signature for a petition.

“I met people like Musa Tshabalala and Grace Mabudusha, both under 30 years of age and currently unemployed. Their stories were but two of dozens of similar situations we heard today. These are stories of seeming hopelessness,” summarised Gana about the DA’s attempt to take Gauteng in the 2014 elections.

As the passer-by-pamphlet-chat-signature routine dragged on, a security guard spotted the party’s national spokesman Mmusi Maimane entering the walkway, conspicuous in his royal blue T-shirt. Armed with a baton and walkie-talkie, the guard told Maimane and DA communications adviser Kelly Miller that the small group couldn’t continue its work.

The guard was hundreds of leaflets too late and the DA was ready to leave, so they consented to her demand. But she went silent when I asked on what grounds the five members were evicted from a public space. “They can’t do that here,” she said before clamming up at the question, “Why not?”

Helen Zille, speaking at the DA’s Limpopo conference this weekend, reiterated that it was the party’s aim to take key provinces, especially Gauteng, on the journey to its Holy Grail, national government.

On the national level the DA’s strategy is clear. It wants to keep its nose clean and argue that, in contrast to the ANC, its experience in the Western Cape and Midvaal shows it can perform the functions of government effectively.

At the same time, it will argue the ANC’s call for a “second transition” to deliver the economic benefits of democracy is an admission of failure and an attempt to change the Constitution so the ruling party can cling to power.

But in a media shootout the DA has to withstand shots from all angles. The louder its leaders get, the more the ANC, Cosatu, SACP and a host of other acronyms call them whites, capitalists, quasi-liberals and enemies of the poor without struggle credentials. After that it’s much simpler to rebut the party’s arguments.

So in the lead-up to 2014, which the DA talks of as if it’s next week, the party is trying to build ground-level support. “We will do things differently. We will initiate meaningful campaigns that will fundamentally change the perception of the voters on the ground. We will be knocking on more doors and entering the homes of our prospective voters,” Gauteng leader John Moodey told the Mail & Guardian after he was recently elected.

But some attempts to engage constituents have been hindered. A month ago Maimane tried to speak to taxi drivers about increasing fuel prices at Bree Street taxi rank in downtown Joburg but was told he’ll have to consult security and the head office to enter.

He recently visited Park Station to ask commuters about the escalating price of train tickets. His small group, under 15 members, was told they needed permission to hold a political rally.

“Metrorail security decided to forcibly remove me and other DA activists from the station before we could meet with commuters inside the public train station,” said the party spokesman, tipped to lead the DA in Gauteng to the 2014 election.

“Clearly, Metrorail doesn’t like its customers having an honest conversation about the huge increases they are forced to pay for deteriorating services.” Maimane said those in charge of places controlled by state-owned enterprises claim protection from political parties and we need a conversation about their neutrality.

Prasa, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, said they had no word Maimane was going to Park Station and was not expected.

Maimane said he’s “seeing more and more” attempts to stifle and intimidate the DA’s groundwork after leaders of organisations affiliated to the tripartite alliance have amped up their war talk. “I think people like (Numsa general secretary) Irvin Jim who have made some insinuations about war have inspired people to act in that manner,” said Maimane.

Jim warned the DA before its attempted march to Cosatu House, which ended in a downtown battle between unionists and party supporters: “The DA march marks the beginning of an open class warfare that will characterise the South African landscape,” he said.

The discourse spilled over into the controversy surrounding Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear, of President Jacob Zuma. Speaking outside the Goodman Gallery, leaders of the tripartite alliance drew the battle lines between “us” and “them”.

“They” were, in a nutshell, a caricature of DA supporters – liberal capitalists who don’t understand African values, the plight of the working class and the struggle against colonialism and Apartheid.

That morning, a group of DA members were distributing youth wage subsidy pamphlets in Katlehong. They split up and four members came across a busload of ANC supporters waiting to travel to march against The Spear.

Up to 60 ANC supporters approached the DA members and threatened to assault them if they didn’t hand over their flyers. Intimidated, the flyers were handed over and burned by the ANC supporters before they hopped on the bus to defend the president’s dignity.

Fortune Mahano, a DA councillor in Katlehong, said it was an isolated incident caused by mob mentality. It’s been the only case of intimidation against the local DA, he said, and they were able to set up a table in the same area over the weekend to sign new members.

But as the DA has already been involved in one skirmish with Cosatu and becomes more vocal and visible publicly, prompting a greater response from the unions and the ruling party, it may not be an isolated incident.

In Katlehong, Mahano said his members will continue with their work but they don’t want a street battle. But if the DA wants to get an extra one million voters in Gauteng in 2014, he might not have a choice. DM

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Photo: DA national spokesman Mmusi Maimane enters a taxi at the Bree Street rank in Johannesburg. Maimane was meeting taxi drivers to talk about the rising cost of fuel but limited the ‘meet and greet’ to outside the rank after difficulty getting access. 


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