Making allowances for the necessary differences in language and style, the Monday's breakfast briefing was pretty much the South African equivalent of eavesdropping on a political “inside baseball” talk by the likes of a David Axelrod or a Karl Rove, leavened with a touch of the ANC’s ideological bent and special language to keep it woven into the local political system. J. BROOKS SPECTOR listened carefully to all the spin, but he admits he still remains somewhat perplexed about the larger meaning of it all.
What the assembled journalists received early on Monday morning as they listened to a tag team performance by deputy general secretary of the ANC Jessie Duarte and 2014 election campaign coordinating “top dog” Amos Masondo was a peek, a tease, a fleeting glance of things being wheeled into place while the camouflaging drop-cloth was pulled back slightly revealing some of the political furniture located underneath.
Speaking first, former Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo set out the case for taking the ANC’s continued electoral dominance seriously over the long haul, even though virtually no one doubts they will win the overall vote in 2014 by a serious margin. Like almost any other poll months before an election, Masondo offered the usual reassurance that the polls go up and they go down but it’s the ground game that really matters. Masondo’s recitation was designed to underscore the challenge of maintaining a healthy electoral majority across the nation, and also province by province, except for the possibility of continuing runner up status in the Western Cape. Commenting later, Jessie Duarte added that the party is at its strongest among women between 18-35, important because South Africa’s population is 53% female.
In particular, Masondo focused closely on how to gather up the large cohort of potential new voters to be registered and then encouraged to vote next year. And, of course, Masondo also claimed the ANC would crush the opposition, whom they kept calling “a threat”. Not literally, of course, although it was said with a sufficiently wicked smile that one would be forgiven for thinking they meant that.
Speaking on the question of party manifestos – the heart and soul of an ideologically driven party –Masondo insisted that now was not the time to reveal the party platform, its manifesto, for the 2014 election because some opposing parties might get ideas and adopt (aka pinch, steal, appropriate) some of these very same proposals for their own manifestos and party positions. From a political theatre perspective, this seemed to betray just a touch of nervousness about the fragility of the party’s approach to or embrace of new ideas, or perhaps a sense the alliance leadership has, so far, been incapable of reaching full internal agreement over how (or what) it will roll out to entice prospective voters when the time is right.
Duarte, meanwhile, pointed to upcoming meetings between members of the tripartite alliance that will be designed hammer out any future discord on economic policies and principles. (Code for that unseemly public squabble over whether the National Development Plan (NDP) must be adhered to.) She noted that the NDP is government policy and the issue on the table is simply how best to get government officials and offices to carry it out effectively. (And that’s code for the time is past to debate the NDP. Sorry.)
Duarte was also at pains to underscore the party’s view that South Africa is definitely open for business, despite any recent unpleasantness. And that the government continues to look for partners even as it is looking for ways to increase the government’s own involvement in the economy via its state-owned enterprises.
In response to a question about Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele’s open disclosure of her finances, both Duarte and Masondo argued that since all government officials already disclose their financial situations yearly, the two party officials swore they simply didn’t understand what the fuss is about. (Of course it didn’t seem to make sense that neither briefer was prepared to understand, at least in front of a room full of cynical reporters, that the core of the issue was not the filing of a form with some cabinet functionary, but rather providing information to the public. But the question, of course, is whether the public will feel the same way.)
Duarte then offered a bit of veiled “hard ball” in describing her judgement of Ramphele’s original pronouncement, saying “if you put yourself out like a toffee, then you must also expect to be chewed.” Whack! Take that, Mamphela, she seemed to be saying, this is the big leagues now.
Duarte also said the Dina Pule saga is receiving the highest possible attention and there may yet be further disciplinary action, and the so-called Zuma spy tapes issue is one for the government to deal with. Moreover, Masondo insisted that the party is helping Cosatu deal with its internal turbulence as a key element in its overall election strategic plan.
Responding to the question of how the party would deal with the possibility that it might actually fall below 50% of the votes, thereby forcing the need to form a coalition in order to govern, the briefers shrugged off any such a possibility. In answering that way, they also brushed back addressing the question of whether their party would make its move to the right or the left of the political spectrum in order to hold onto a majority of the electorate.
Ultimately, the briefing raised almost as many questions as it answered. Attendees were left still scratching their heads about how the ANC will heal the rifts in its tripartite alliance (especially within Cosatu, as well as between part of Cosatu and the ANC), how the party is planning to entice new voters into its fold rather than let the emerging black middle class defect to a potential new political home, or how it will allow its now-traditional rural and lower class support from sliding away to another alternative.
What was clear, however, was that the managers of the party’s electoral machinery are focused like two of those proverbial laser beams on the tasks of winning an election convincingly, rather than just winning. Their focus is on ensuring the party’s political machinery is well and truly harnessed to the details of getting voters to register to vote, getting out that vote on election day and having them vote the right way while they are at it. And, finally, guaranteeing their fractious alliance stays together for the single most important fact of its existence – winning an election.
Maybe we should all be grateful for small favours. At least attendees weren’t hearing echoes of those old Chicago-style electioneering mantras by equally old-style pols, you know the ones: Vote early, vote often; The vote is close and the dead people are going to show up this time; or, if it’s necessary, we’re going to stay here all night counting these ballots until they finally come out right. But it is definitely “game on”. DM
Photo: Jessie Duarte (Werner Beukes/SAPA)