South Africa

DA’s misguided campaigns: How to lose friends and not influence people

By Ranjeni Munusamy 23 April 2013

With the ANC government besieged by corruption, a cascade of reports showing wanton abuse and wastage of taxpayers’ money, incompetence and back-to-back scandals, the opposition Democratic Alliance does not have to do much to look good by comparison. All the DA needs do, really, is show the potential to do better. And yet the DA insists on undertaking cockamamie campaigns and stunts which make it look desperate for publicity and clueless about what is driving the citizens of South Africa to despair. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

On Monday, the Democratic Alliance leader in Limpopo, Desiree van der Walt, issued a media statement announcing that her party would be tabling a motion of no confidence in the provincial legislature against Premier Cassel Mathale. In the statement, Van Der Walt admits that previous attempts to table this motion failed as they were blocked by the programming committee in the legislature – obviously dominated by the ANC.

“The political context has changed now. Premier Mathale’s own party has already effectively placed their own motion of no confidence in him. This gives political space for ANC legislature members who are serious about clean administration to vote in favour of the DA’s motion without fear of reprisals,” Van der Walt said.

In other words, the DA is rolling the dice again, hoping it will work this time.

If the ANC wanted to fire Mathale, why would it not do so? It has the power and ability to remove him whenever it wants. The ANC went as far as deposing a sitting president, a man as powerful as Thabo Mbeki once was, because it no longer wanted him running the state. It did so in the most unceremonious fashion, hardly giving him time to pack his belongings. It did not occur to the DA that if the ruling party was willing to take such drastic action against Mbeki, it would hardly need to turn to the DA for help in getting rid of Mathale.

The ANC has not yet removed Mathale because it needs to work out a few issues, including who should replace him and how to retain the support ANC members in his camp. Limpopo has consistently been among the top-polling provinces for the ANC, and while the ruling party wants to flush out Mathale and his coterie, it does not want the move to cause it to lose significant support in next year’s election.

So it is not as if the ANC would look at the proposed motion of no confidence and see it as a quick fix to get rid of Mathale. This would only further alienate his supporters. In fact, rather than collaborate with the DA, the ANC factions are more likely to close ranks to protect Mathale from a stunt by the opposition. The DA in Limpopo clearly did not do its homework and canvass the views of ANC members opposed to Mathale or it would have known that such a move was destined to fail. Again.

This is not to say that the DA in Limpopo should sit back and do nothing. As the ANC factions do battle, there is clearly space for the DA to manoeuvre and capture the support of people disgruntled by the infighting. There are many people in Limpopo who are also aware that the factional clashes in the ANC are not about cleaning up government and improving service delivery, but rather who has access to the money tree.

Therefore, the DA, as well as other opposition parties in that province, needs a smart strategy to attract the support of such people. Cheap publicity stunts do not equate to a smart strategy or gain much political mileage.

But this is not a problem confined just to the DA in Limpopo. Early last month, the DA announced it was submitting an Electoral Reform Bill in Parliament with a view to amending the Electoral Act to introduce a constituency system to elect MPs. Like its short-lived electoral reform campaign in 2008, this one is bound to fall flat as it is too close to next year’s election to gain traction.

For such a campaign to succeed there needs to be serious groundwork and momentum to force the issue onto the national agenda. As we stated when the DA announced the campaign last month, there are simply not enough people who think the current system is significantly flawed, to have it changed. And it would take some amount convincing to show how a hybrid system of both constituency-based representation and proportional representation would ensure better service delivery and accountability.

But perhaps the DA’s most ill-considered campaign, however, is the current drive to show that the party – or rather its earlier incarnations – opposed Apartheid. In an obvious effort to compete with the ANC’s formidable legacy as the leading force of the liberation struggle, the DA is pimping out certain parts of its history to establish its anti-Apartheid credentials and make it more appealing to black voters.

While the DA does have some credentials to speak of, and does need to change the its image of being a white party, the manner in which it has gone about the campaign, particularly the use of Nelson Mandela’s image on its posters, has caused more offence than win kudos.

Apart from exploiting Mandela’s image without his permission, to use him in a campaign against the organisation he remained loyal to under the most trying conditions is wholly inappropriate. The DA stubbornly argues that Mandela belongs to everyone. It fails to recognise that Mandela the statesman is who he became after he was shaped as Mandela the ANC activist, Mandela the ANC prisoner and Mandela the ANC president.

The Mail & Guardian reported that as part of its strategy for next year’s election, the DA plans to “expose how the ANC and the NP (National Party) governments run parallel”. A draft strategy document compares the levels of police violence and the use of legislation to suppress democracy and personal freedom under both governments. According to the paper, the document contains an image of the ANC flag in the orange, white and blue colours of the old South African flag.

The ANC’s track record and horrific incidents of police brutality on its watch gives the DA significant ammunition to draw parallels with the former Apartheid regime. In an election year, this would be fair game and a shrewd strategy to attract ANC supporters disillusioned with their party. With the number of service delivery protests and demand for jobs and the eradication of poverty, there is obviously much disillusionment with the ANC that can be exploited by the opposition.

However, while ANC members and supporters might turn away from their party due to current frustrations with government performance, it does not mean that they would automatically sever the deep bonds with the party’s history. For generations, the ANC was the source of hope and opposition against racial oppression and its flag and leaders were treasured symbols. Desecrating the ANC flag, particularly with the colours of the Apartheid regime, is a deeply offensive act.

The 2014 election will be a big test for people who grew up in the ANC but are disenchanted with the current leadership, the factional battles, exploitation of government resources and poor performance. However, many such people will be able to distinguish between their love for their organisation and disappointment with the incumbent leadership. The DA strategists who came up with the photoshopped image of the ANC flag are obviously unable to do so.

Desecrating a symbol of liberation and exploiting the image of Nelson Mandela are a sure-fire way of turning off ANC supporters, even if they are disillusioned.

The DA has a lot going for it, including an impressive ground mobilisation campaign. However it seems to be floundering when it comes to strategies for exploiting the ANC’s weaknesses. These have all made the party look clumsy and amateurish.

The DA also appears to be spending an inordinate amount of time taking on battles it cannot win, and in the process drawing focus away from what it should be doing: showing how it could do better than the ANC.

And that is really not that hard to do. DM

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