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Elections 2014: The art of electoral warfare, and a question of confidence

Elections 2014: The art of electoral warfare, and a question of confidence

President Jacob Zuma got booed again last week, this time at a soccer match. It is uncertain whether this was a political statement against the president himself or whether South African soccer fans are so fed up with the performance of the national soccer team Bafana Bafana that they needed to take it out on someone – and opted for Number One. Had Bafana Bafana won or at least drawn against Brazil, would it still have happened? Losing has a tremendous psychological effect on people, and everyone wants to be on the winning side. This is why in this year’s election campaign, so many parties are projecting themselves as the next government, even though some of them could hardly win a fluffy toy at the funfair. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

You see it all the time in the United States elections and Hollywood productions featuring mass campaign events: “Ladies and gentlemen, the next president of the United States, [insert candidate’s name]”. The crowd cheers wildly and the said candidate strides on to the stage, waving exuberantly and pointing to random people in the crowd. It would just not have the same ring if they say “Please welcome the person running against six other people in the primaries, who will hopefully emerge as the party candidate and then beat the other guy in the presidential race”.

Of course South Africa has a different electoral rhythm to that of the US, but in the 2014 elections, and particularly courtesy of Democratic Alliance (DA) Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane, there has been much more American-style campaigning. There are now even Obama knock-off television advertisements projecting Maimane as the conquering hero.

There is an unwritten rule in the ANC against self-promotion and campaigning should be in the party name only. This defined the style of election campaigning up to now.

The entry of new players on the political scene has, however, redefined the terrain. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which will not even be a year old at the time of the polls, assertively proclaim that they are heading for “victory” and are a government in waiting. The EFF leader Julius Malema confidently projects himself as the next president of South Africa and that his party’s radical policies on nationalisation and land expropriation without compensation will be a reality within a few months.

He is not the only one. From the moment Mamphela Ramphele entered politics at the beginning of last year, she aimed high, proclaiming that the people of South Africa want change and she was the enabler. As her party Agang struggled to find its feet, she thought that a partnership with the DA might put her on the fast lane to the presidency of South Africa. Even though that dalliance dissolved, Ramphele states confidently that she will be leading the next government.

Congress of the People (Cope) leader Mosiuoa Lekota has also been rather optimistic about his party’s chances at the polls. Cope won 30 seats in 2009 on the back of its split from the ANC, following the recall of Thabo Mbeki. Since then it has been bogged down in leadership battles and Lekota has been trying to prop up the party through partnerships with other opposition groups. Its ideological standing has thus become more and more clouded. The idea of setting up a “better, cleaner” ANC outside the ANC has not really worked. Despite all this, and the fact that the party is broke, Lekota has remained bullish, declaring Cope would be victorious in the elections.

The DA initially pitched quite low, stating that it was aiming to take over government in 2019 and wanted to achieve 30% of the ballot in this year’s elections. But as the election momentum built, the DA then aimed for Gauteng and dispatched Maimane on his solo roadshow. The DA is seemingly campaigning on realistic targets, hoping the level-headedness would appeal to its constituency. It basically wants to keep control of the Western Cape, give the ANC a scare in Gauteng and grow its representation in other provinces. It also wants the ANC to self-destruct in the next five years and keep projecting itself as the conglomeration of good guys with some experience of governance, ready to take over.

The ANC’s strategy is simply to do enough to stay in power. It trades on its 102-year history, it legion of past heroes, its experience in government and its delivery achievements. The subtext in the ANC’s messaging is that it is much better than the Apartheid government and that things could have been worse. In the 2014 elections, it is undertaking to keep South Africa going on pretty much the same path and that hopefully by 2030 things will be really great thanks to the National Development Plan. What happens between now and then, though, particularly in terms of economic policy, is somewhat unclear.

But with all the trouble and bad publicity the ANC has had, it is still confident that it can poll above the 60% barrier. It knows that people who have supported the ANC all their lives have serious problems voting for another party. The ANC leadership is also aware that the party’s history and size are its greatest assets, and therefore should remain its primary selling points.

President Jacob Zuma is fond of being Biblical about the ANC’s dominance and future rule of South Africa. He thinks the best way to make the point that the ANC’s power will be unchallenged for the foreseeable future is to say that the party will rule until the Second Coming. He repeated this on the campaign trail in Tshwane on Friday, though in coded form so as not to upset Christian groups again. “We will rule until someone who came before, returns,” Zuma said.

Zuma was also dismissive of those who aspire to occupy his office at the Union Buildings: “No one who is normal can think there’s another party that can win the election but the ANC. That person is abnormal.” He was also disparaging of upstart parties: “Anybody who starts a political party now is not normal. Maybe we didn’t realise this when they were in the ANC.”

It is unlike Zuma to take on other parties on the campaign trail; he is normally effusive about the ANC and let’s others in the party get their hands dirty sparring with the opposition. The fact that he hinted at Malema, however nuanced, shows that there is an awareness of the EFF’s impact on the campaign trail.

With South Africa still being far away from issue-based elections, perceptions are still able to drive voting patterns. Most of the parties are out to convince voters that they have a chance of winning the elections, no matter how limited their chances are. The ANC is saying to voters that it is a waste to vest their support with any other party, as it is only the party in government that can implement. For those who do not understand the role of the opposition in holding the government to account, and only recognise the importance of those controlling the levels of the state, that message hit home.

If there is one thing the trajectory of the performance of the national football team Bafana Bafana has shown, it is that support should not be taken for granted. People are naturally attracted to winners and are repelled once losing becomes a pattern. The more political parties can project themselves as a winning team, the more people will be drawn to them.

But once football teams or parties are on the decline, it is difficult to stop the downward slide or the public backlash. Someone will get booed. On the rare occasion, football and politics will collide, and the person being booed will be the president. DM

Photo: ANC supporters gather in Johannesburg on Tuesday, 4 February 2014 to take advantage of a postponement of the Democratic Alliance’s planned “march for real jobs” to Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters in the city to address members. (SAPA)


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