The DA took the e-tolls battle to the streets of Gauteng last week, erecting mysterious anonymous billboards criticizing the ANC for e-tolling. It was a clever move: as intended, the billboards became a talking point and the ANC’s defensive response did the party no credit. But negative political advertising is often considered risky in South Africa. Meanwhile, one SA think-tank says the ANC is doing so badly at its own positive PR that it’s temporarily taking over the job for the party. REBECCA DAVIS examines the state of the political communications landscape.
The ANC claims that the majority of Gauteng residents support e-tolling. On the contrary, it’s hard to think of another ANC policy which has met with such seemingly universal disapproval, uniting races, political opponents and income groups. As the DA pushes to see Mmusi Maimane elected Gauteng Premier in 2014, the opposition party will be seeking to extract every potential drop of political mileage from the e-tolling issue.
Last Thursday, three billboards criticising the ruling party’s e-tolling policy were set up along the N3 and N1 highways in Johannesburg next to the e-toll gantries. “E-tolls. Proudly brought to you by the ANC”, they read. There were no indications as to who had paid for them. It was initially suspected that civil society group OUTA (Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance) might be behind the billboards, but chairman Wayne Duvenage denied this, pointing out that the group did not have sufficient funds to spend on this kind of public advertising.
DA shadow transport minister Ian Ollis initially refused to confirm that his party was responsible for the billboards. On Sunday, Mmusi Maimane came out to claim the billboards, however, releasing a statement saying that the message of the billboards was “100% accurate” and that the DA would “defend our right to erect these billboards in any forum the ANC chooses”.
This was an apparent reference to an appearance ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza made on eNCA on Friday after the billboards had first come to light, saying that the ANC would “try to determine whether the matter should be taken up with the IEC or with the relevant authorities in advertising, because we think it’s unethical”.
Maimane’s response: “We say bring it on”. But it’s unclear whether the ANC has actually gone ahead with any such step. On Sunday, ANC spokesperson, Khuselwa Sangoni-Khane, said that the ANC would “not comment on this matter further”.
That’s what they should have done all along, ex DA spin-doctor Nick Clelland told the Daily Maverick on Monday. Clelland is now the CEO of a communications agency called Resolve Communications, set up alongside Tony Leon, but he previously worked as head of communications for the Western Cape government, so he knows the DA’s modus operandi well.
“What the DA wants is for the ANC to respond to the posters, because then debate is created and journalists will write stories and take pictures of the billboards,” Clelland said. “This is a no-win situation for the ANC. My advice would be to stop digging. Any attention they pay the billboards prolongs the debate.”
Spin man Chris Vick, who was previously communications director for Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale, and who now runs a communications agency called Black, had much the same advice for the ANC. “The ANC should probably formally ignore the campaign – any response just gives it additional oxygen – and focus on its own campaigns,” Vick told the Daily Maverick. “But the ANC may find it worth referencing the billboards in campaign meetings as evidence that the DA offers little more than negative campaigning.”
Vick said he didn’t think the DA’s approach was necessarily to be recommended. “The party seems to be attempting to win support through negative campaigning, rather than pushing positive messages. But negative campaigning rarely, if ever, works in the South African political landscape. So although the campaigns may resonate with existing DA supporters, they do little, if anything, to build the DA’s base.”
Clelland disagreed that negative political advertising was inadvisable. “Negative advertising per se is not without its merits, though it’s different if you’re using it as a general tone,” he said. “If the EFF had to go in [to campaigning for the 2014 elections] with a negative ANC campaign, it would probably pick them up votes. It’s a strategy less likely to work with bigger parties, like the DA and the ANC. But [the e-toll billboard message] isn’t the DA’s election campaign. If I know them, they’ve done their research.”
DA Communications Head, Gavin Davis, told the Daily Maverick that contrary to the impression given by the e-toll billboards, the DA’s election campaign would not be focused on ANC weaknesses. “We are going to run a positive campaign in Gauteng and elsewhere,” Davis said. “Our focus will be on the DA’s offer – our plans to create jobs, improve education, fight crime and stop corruption.”
Davis said that the DA’s future billboards would be “more conventional than this one”. He said the DA’s decision to make the e-tolls anonymous was designed to “focus people’s attention on the message conveyed on the billboard, rather than who was conveying the message”.
He also said that the “suspense factor” about who was behind the billboards worked to draw attention to them. Davis refused to say how much the DA paid for the billboards, saying only that the amount was “far less than what the people of Gauteng will have to fork out for e-tolls”.
Though the ANC seems to have resolved to formally ignore the billboards, that hasn’t stopped individual ANC officials and organs having their say. The ANC Women’s League reportedly called the billboards evidence that the DA was “trying to be smart”, and “opportunistic”. The billboards were the work of “cowards”, Transport Minister, Dipuo Peters, said on Monday, speaking at a New Age Breakfast Briefing. “(These are) people who don’t have the decency to actually acknowledge what the ANC government has delivered in this country,” she said.
ANC national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu took to Twitter on Monday to give a more positive response to the DA’s billboards, by tweeting positive accomplishments that the ANC could also be held accountable for. “#ProudlyBroughtByANC Freedom for all South Africans”, he tweeted. “A single education system for all #ProudlyBroughtByANC”. Over the course of ten tweets he cited aspects of South African society like respect for human rights, the social grant system, the distribution of RDP houses and – perhaps straining credulity a little – “a credible and world-acclaimed criminal justice system” as more examples of improvements brought to the country by the ANC.
The Deputy CEO of the SA Institute for Race Relations (SAIRR), Frans Cronje, says that this type of communication to the public – essentially blowing the party’s own trumpet – has been neglected by the ANC. “The ANC has been particularly bad at communicating progress that it could take credit for,” Cronje told the Daily Maverick.
“[The SAIRR’s] work increasingly identifies progress made by South Africa. When we publish or present some of these results, audiences are dumbstruck. This applies within the South African government and the ANC as well as in business, civil society, and even the media.” Cronje says that the ANC is consistently failing to communicate real South African improvements to the public. He identifies the annual state of the nation address, delivered by the president, as a particular missed opportunity. “We sit and watch [the address] and they’re just not using the information they could be to argue their corner.”
Of course, Cronje says, many problems remain, and the ANC is justifiably attacked for these. But he feels that the public is not receiving the whole picture, and he says that should be a real concern. “If South Africans don’t know what is happening in their country, how can they possibly make decisions about who should lead the country? Lack of informed decision-making is a great threat to our democracy.”
So, the SAIRR has decided to give the ANC a bit of help. For the next ten days, they’ll be tweeting a fact a day dealing with South African progress in the political, economic, and social environments under the ANC.
“These ten points have been selected because they so often surprise the audiences we speak to,” said Cronje. The campaign kicked off on Monday: “Since the ANC came to power the number of students enrolled at university has doubled from 360,000 to 740.000 #IRRKnowYourANC”, the institute tweeted.
Cronje has already been accused of campaigning for the ANC. “Correct, this campaign is an unashamed attempt to show the progress that the party has made,” he says. But he says that anyone who has followed the SAIRR’s work since democracy would laugh off the idea that the institute is politically biased towards the ANC. “In my ten years at the SAIRR I have been accused of acting as a front for the DA, ANC, IFP, right wing and even CIA,” Cronje says. “There is surely no better endorsement of spirited independence than that.”
Cronje stressed that it’s not the case that the ANC is failing in all of its political communication. “The ANC has the advantage of its branch structures, which give a wide concrete foundation to communicate through,” he says. Clelland suggests that the ANC’s approach to political messaging is quite different from the DA’s, with the opposition party traditionally focusing on radio advertising and working hard at growing its social media presence. “The ANC have massive events, huge outdoor advertising spend, and they roll out their leaders. Because of volume and money, it gets its message across.”
When it comes to creating political messages that resonate deeply with voters, however, there’s no single blueprint for success. But neither is it a “thumb-suck,” Clelland says. “Every party will have done their research. They know who they’re going after.” DM
Photo of the billboard by the eNCA.