On Wednesday, up to 20,000 Democratic Alliance (DA) supporters marched through the Johannesburg CBD. While the party confronts continued allegations of racism from opponents, it was the DA's first significant move in canvassing votes for the local government elections on a new, more positive agenda. By GREG NICOLSON.
“Bopha!” yelled marshals as they braced themselves and linked arms to hold back the surging crowd.
“Move forward!” The march was billed as one of the Democratic Alliance’s most attended, and thousands pressed ahead down Marshall Street. Mmusi Maimane was walking in front of the throng with The Squad, the DA’s chosen icons for the municipal elections, those who hit the stage with theme music. He stepped forward and addressed a video camera, like a reporter doing a live-crossing. Was he filming an advert, a municipal election pitch on why the DA should take SA’s metros while his party was occupying the biggest metro of all, Johannesburg?
“The DA is that hope. The DA is the change we need to move forward again,” read a script hanging from the camera.
Politics is always about positioning, but the game has been raised leading up to the local vote. The ANC could lose either Johannesburg, Tshwane or Nelson Mandela Bay, which, if any of them fall, would not only be a symbolic shift, but also allow whoever wins to govern a metro (another, if it’s the DA) and prove whether they’re better city managers, setting themselves up for the urban vote in the 2019 general elections. So positioning and advertising matter.
The destination for Wednesday’s march was the corner of Jeppe and Pixley Ka Isaka Seme streets, where the DA recently erected a billboard with a ticker counting ongoing job losses under President Jacob Zuma alongside his picture. The ANC called the billboard racist and it was later vandalised. That’s been the trend between the parties for 2016. After the launch of its Vision 2029 last year, the DA is focusing on themes like jobs while trying to frame the party as an alternative. The ANC is calling the DA racist, which, while Maimane’s recent speech was a good step forward, hasn’t been helped by the party. (It overturned Dianne Kohler Barnard’s expulsion. Penny Sparrow was a member, though now she is a former member. Joburg mayoral candidate Herman Mashaba was allowed to speak off the cuff, and the party maintains a predominantly white, male management.)
The ANC meanwhile says it’s the only party that can improve service delivery and solve the challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality. But while it seems to have accepted the consensus that not enough has been done to achieve economic freedom during democracy, a stance driven home by the student protests, the claim is hollow unless the ANC introduces new policies to address its failures.
Photo: DA leaders lead the party’s march for jobs in Johannesburg, with up to 20,000 members in tow, according to the party. (Greg Nicolson)
At the start of the DA march, Gauteng leader, John Moodey, came on stage to Eye of the Tiger, pumping his fists like Rocky after climbing the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 72 steps. “Today we march for jobs. Today we say enough is enough,” he said, repeating the message that unemployment affects us all, our brothers and sisters. The crowd continued to build, buses rolled in, private security stood guard and metro police and SAPS monitored the situation.
On the sidelines, party CEO, Paul Boughey, who is also the DA’s national campaign manager, said, “Elections are not won on the minutia of policy” but on “winning hearts and minds”. The DA has spent at least two years preparing how to frame its election message, he said, and this time the party is focusing on a “positive, forward looking campaign” offering alternatives on key issues and highlighting the DA’s record where it governs.
Before voters even judge the party on its alternative policies, they’ll have to ask whether the DA represents the interests of the white minority and big business, which the ANC, and likely the Economic Freedom Fighters, will continue to argue. Marching towards the torn DA billboard, party member Daniel Mokoena, from Alexandra, claimed the allegations are not a problem. Mokoena said members from Alex pushed for Kohler Barnard’s expulsion to be overturned as she was exercising free speech, and was not supporting PW Botha in her Facebook re-post, but expressing disappointment in the state of education, health and unemployment. He didn’t go as far as saying, “It was better under apartheid”, but wasn’t far off – a position that’s hard to sell, but one that taps into criticism that the ANC has not met expectations.
The Squad, at the front of the march on Wednesday, will have to earn voters’ trust for them to believe both that the DA is not racist, and that it can do a better job than the ANC. They’re the product of Helen Zille’s attempts to transform the face of the party towards young, black (or diverse) professionals. The Squad’s leader, of course, is Maimane. Then there’s Tshwane mayoral candidate, Solly Msimanga, party spokesperson, Phumzile Van Damme, Midvaal Mayor Bongani Baloyi, and Athol Trollip, the DA’s mayoral candidate for Nelson Mandela Bay. He isn’t young or black, but is in high-standing in the DA and speaks more isiXhosa in his speeches than English.
Mashaba, the party’s candidate for Joburg mayor, is the newest member of the front group. On Wednesday he took the stage after a performance by Bucie (it’s elections and time to cash-in for artists), his first big outing as a party leader. Maybe performing after Bucie would always be a let-down. Mashaba avoided overt gaffes but in the process lacked confidence and personality. Along with the rest of the crew, he will have to prove he is a trustworthy leader. Young black DA leaders, like Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mbali Ntuli, have been sidelined, and the current team will have to show voters that not only can the faces of the party change, but that they can be trusted to improve livelihoods. That said, Maimane is the DA’s rock star, the face of the party’s election campaign. Apart from Zille and Mazibuko, he is the only party leader whose public profile compares to those of the ANC’s ministers and struggle veterans.
“Do you think they got angry about unemployment?” he asked of the ANC when he took the stage. “No, they got angry at our billboard. They called it racist, and they vandalised it. You see, the ANC has forgotten the real-life struggles of South Africans who have no work.” He spoke on the “three Es” – education, employment, equity – and promised the DA would work harder in government than the ANC has. “We are here today because we believe that the hope for our nation, that the only way out of poverty, is always through a job,” said the party leader, wearing a blue shirt, khaki pants and CAT shoes. Despite the DA’s shift towards providing alternatives and not just calling out the ANC, his speech was largely critical of Zuma and the ruling party.
The DA website lists its five-point plan to create jobs: improve education, invest in infrastructure, create a nation of entrepreneurs, reward businesses that create jobs, and change the labour laws. Still, while these elections are likely to be the most contested in democratic history, the minutia of policy will likely be overcome by positioning. The DA march, one of more to come, was not just about jobs. It was about building on a billboard campaign and election strategy it started last year. It was about telling Johannesburg and the country it has the support to win metros.
“Vote DA for change that creates jobs,” read a billboard across from where Maimane addressed the crowd. Above, a plane dragged a DA banner through the sky. Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters, stood only a block away. DM
Main photo: DA leader Mmusi Maimane salutes the crowd at the party’s march for jobs in Johannesburg. (Greg Nicolson)