Following the launch of Agang in February last year, there was some consternation amongst the DA strategists about the effect Mamphela Ramphele’s party would have on them and how much of their constituency she would eat into. Ramphele sashayed onto the political scene like the true performance artist she is, lamenting South Africa’s problems and the ANC’s failures. One of the few definite things she put on the table that her party would be championing was electoral reform, pledging to launch a million-signature campaign to mobilise support for this.
Almost a year later, it is unclear how many signatures Agang has or whether the proposal got lost in the drudgery of running a political party. Back then, however, the DA obviously thought Ramphele was trying to steal their thunder as electoral reform was something they had been tossing around for a while. They rushed to submit an Electoral Reform Bill in Parliament in the hope that by now the wheels would be turning to introduce a constituency system to elect MPs in the 2014 election.
As we at Daily Maverick warned back them, the proposed legislation would never fly and the bid for urgent electoral reform was a wild goose chase. The DA simply does not have the numbers in Parliament to push it through and besides there are numerous pressing issues to campaign on:
“The real battle is for the hearts and minds of voters, who will be watching political parties closely in the next few months. The ANC will have to pull up its socks and convince its constituency that it deserves to remain in power overwhelmingly, despite its poor performance and litany of scandals. The DA will have to show that it is a government-in-waiting, and in order to do so, it cannot have split focus away from displaying its machinery in action.”
But the DA is at it again – this time planning to take 6,000 of its supporters in pursuit of another wild goose through the Johannesburg City Centre to the doorstep of the ruling party’s headquarters.
“We are taking the fight to Luthuli House to highlight the failure of Jacob Zuma’s ANC to cut corruption and create jobs. And we will expose Jacob Zuma’s manifesto promise of six million ‘work opportunities’ as bogus. These are not real jobs. They are temporary public works placements that will do little to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty permanently and sustainably,” DA leader Helen Zille said on Wednesday.
The announcement did not go down as well as she and her strategists thought it would – even in the DA’s own ranks. Of course the ANC was furious, with its national spokesman Jackson Mthembu calling the planned march an act of “extreme provocation” and “an arrogant attack on our movement”.
“The ANC believes that this planned march to its headquarters is unnecessary and an exercise in adventurism. We further we view it as a provocative and attention-seeking stunt not designed to address the issues it purports,” Mthembu said.
The DA’s youth leader Mbali Ntuli churned up debate on social media after posting on her Facebook page and on Twitter: “Not sure I agree with my party marching to Luthuli house. The ANC can say whatever they want in their manifesto. As can we.”
Ntuli was alongside Zille in May 2012 when the DA marched to Cosatu House in Braamfontein to deliver a memorandum demanding the implementation of the youth wage subsidy, which the federation vehemently opposed. The march ended in chaos when violence erupted, as Cosatu supporters tried to block the DA from getting near their building. At least three DA supporters sustained head injuries and a journalist suffered a facial injury from a flying brick.
Despite this, and the disruption to business and traffic in the Johannesburg city centre, the DA counts the march to Cosatu House as one of its successes. The measure of this is that the youth wage subsidy has now been passed into law. However, as it is widely known, the youth wage subsidy was announced by President Jacob Zuma in 2010 and budgeted for by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. The fact that it has now been passed into law is not because the DA marched on Cosatu but because the ANC was able to beat down and outmanoeuvre its own ally.
While the DA march to Cosatu was universally supported in the party, there are reservations about the march to the ANC. The interactions on social media show that some of the DA’s leaders and supporters feel that the party needs to be focusing on its own manifesto and projecting its own policies to the electorate rather than to challenge the ANC’s election promises.
The debates on social media and radio stations also suggested that the march was misplaced and should have been directed at government rather than at another political party. And as people with long memories would recall, the last time a political party marched on the ANC headquarters, it ended in disaster. In March 1994, a month before the first democratic elections, about 20,000 Inkatha Freedom Party supporters armed with traditional weapons marched to the ANC’s then headquarters, Shell House, in Johannesburg. ANC security guards opened fire, killing 19 people. The incident sparked a state of emergency in the East Rand and in hotspots in KwaZulu-Natal. Eleven people received amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the massacre.
Back then, it was difficult to find an ANC member or supporter who would condemn the massacre. Even President Nelson Mandela owned up to it, saying he had given the order to protect the ANC headquarters by whatever means necessary. The ANC and IFP were at the time at war, and despite the bloodshed, ANC members saw the IFP march as an act of provocation and believed the action by the security guards as justified.
The effect of the DA’s decision to march on the ANC headquarters is that it reminds ANC supporters of what happened 20 years and forces them to close ranks. With the ANC under so much heat and criticism from its own constituency for its management of the country, the last thing the DA should be doing is pushing people to stand up and defend the ruling party.
Within 24 hours of Zille’s announcement, the ANC Youth League and the South African Communist Party came out to condemn the planned action and signalled their intention to “defend” the ANC building. Even the ANC’s critic, suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi tweeted that the DA should reconsider the march.
Zille’s chief of staff Geordin Hill-Lewis says the plan to march to the ANC headquarters was widely discussed amongst the DA’s national and Gauteng leadership. He said the march would go ahead in spite of the unforeseen criticism once the party received permission from the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD). The DA will meet next Wednesday to sketch out the route and provide assurances that its supporters would be disciplined with no intention of provoking violence.
“This campaign is centred on the management of the economy and job creation. That’s what this election is about… The ANC’s pledge to create six millions jobs is clearly a bogus promise. Nobody has called them out on it; they have largely got away with it. We needed something big to focus the public mind on that promise,” Hill-Lewis said.
Asked why they were marching to the ANC instead of government, Hill-Lewis said: “Our opponent in this election is the ANC… We did need something controversial and this is it.”
Deep throats in the DA claim that the party’s leaders are rattled by all the attention that Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema is getting on the campaign trail, while media coverage of the DA has been limited of late.
“It is a transparent attempt to get media attention. There is panic in the DA and some of our leaders think people are foolish and not see through the publicity stunt… The whole things lack credibility. The plan is to get the ANC agitated [for the DA] to claim victimhood,” said one DA leader.
The victim card worked well for the DA when Zille and other party members were blocked by ANC supporters from marching to Zuma’s estate at Nkandla in November 2012. The action of ANC supporters were seen as political intolerance. However, this DA march to Nkandla has now been completely overshadowed by a more innovative stunt pulled by Malema when he and his supporters built a house for one of Zuma’s neighbours on the very day the president was launching the ANC manifesto. Attempts by ANC supporters to block Malema’s entry received widespread attention and even Zuma was forced to condemn their actions.
It is clear that with scandal fatigue and spadesful of political rhetoric, political parties are forced into desperate measures to get the public and media attention. But marketing and communications strategist Clive Simpkins says the DA’s plan to march to the ANC headquarters is “not smart in PR terms” and was a “counterproductive move”.
He said the march was not properly thought through and would yield no results. He said because Luthuli House was in a built up area, there was potential for things going wrong, including through criminal elements.
Simpkins said there were “umpteen ways” the DA could make the point about the ANC’s failure to deliver jobs, including through big public meetings in which it could explain the unemployment crisis in a rational way.
But the DA’s communication’s director Gavin Davis said they were “a party of activism” and could “not just be stuck in Parliament”. “We need to take our arguments to the streets… The choice [of who to vote for] should be very stark to voters,” he said.
Davis said if the ANC chose to march to the DA’s offices, his party would not threaten them with violence. “There is no place for political intolerance. Everyone should be free to express themselves.”
The DA should be aware that if things go horribly wrong this time, it will not be getting the public sympathy it received previously. The job creation cause will receive no impetus whatsoever by the DA deliberately trying to annoy the ANC. The DA keeps falling into the trap of wanting to compete for attention instead of taking the high road and demonstrating how it can do things better as a government-in-waiting.
The DA’s plan to march also comes in the context of protests around the country by people who feel hopeless, frustrated and voiceless in the face of service delivery failures. Some of these protests have had fatal consequences with the police responding with brute force. The difference with the DA is that it has a voice and it has the platforms to speak. It is not a helpless community forced to the streets because nothing else works.
The DA should be channelling the voices of the frustrated, the disenchanted and the hopeless, instead of marching through the streets of Johannesburg looking for publicity. If the DA wants voters to take it seriously as a contender to run South Africa, it needs to start acting the part. DM
Photo: Helen Zille (C), leader of South Africa’s main opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA), gestures during a march in Johannesburg May 15, 2012. The march by South Africa’s main opposition party on the headquarters of leading union federation COSATU descended into chaos on Tuesday, with police firing tear gas to disperse crowds of rock-throwing protesters. About 1,000 members of the opposition Democratic Alliance marched through downtown Johannesburg in support of a government plan to subsidize the wages of young people in a bid to ease chronic unemployment among the unskilled youth.The group was met by angry COSATU members who blocked the streets, sparking a violent confrontation that had to be broken up by police. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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