South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: DA launches a manifesto that promises to turn the country into Cape Town

TRAINSPOTTER: DA launches a manifesto that promises to turn the country into Cape Town

Last week, the African National Congress dropped a limp municipal election manifesto in a not-so-full stadium. On Saturday, the DA checked in with their own version. If the ANC had nothing to sell but a fading brand, the DA were selling what they consider to be their showpiece: the glittering city at the bottom of Africa where the whole sorry story began its abject sorry-ness. By RICHARD POPLAK.

There were many small beginnings, but the Democratic Alliance municipal election manifesto launch properly kicked off when 2015 Idols winner Karabo Mogane began shirtlessly humping a drum. With pecs a-rippling, Mogane expertly mimicked the art of copulation – a precise enactment of what the DA hopes to do to the ANC in many of South Africa’s rusting metros, albeit wearing blue T-shirts and without the use of percussive ornamentation.

And so, the 2016 municipal election circus trundles its way towards August 3, which has been designated as election day (maybe). On Saturday, the DA’s tents were pitched in the gritty mining community of Rosettenville, southern Johannesburg. It was a baking autumn day, and into the Rand Stadium, capacity 30,000, flowed the DA’s lite-beer commercial mélange of supporters. The DA likes to claim they are the country’s most diverse party, by which they mean that they have white and black members. Nonetheless, in a country obsessed with race, and for a party that represents the last freehold of white political power, this was a largely black crowd. If these new democrats were once comrades, and had recently decamped from the ANC, they were likely to have been a little baffled: there is a ritualised aspect to all of these events, but the DA are so obsessed with scheduling and punctuality that they transform the age-old rituals into clenched-jaw rigour. This thing started at 10:00, and was on course to finish as near as dammit to on-time as possible.

Living in DA-governed South Africa would be like living inside a Swatch.

The launch’s theme was, I think, Vote For Change. But should South Africans indeed Vote For Change come August 3, the best the DA can hope for – and it’s a lot – is retaining Cape Town, while eking out victories Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. (As far as the latter is concerned, they appear to have commenced negotiations with Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of Cosatu, who in order to cobble together a working coalition would be handed the post of deputy mayor in what counts as the country’s most dysfunctional metro.) The chances of this outcome are slim, but not outside the realm of possibility. Should the scenario unfold according to the DA predictions, the results would be catastrophic for the ANC. The patronage network winds its way through big city wards like a tapeworm creeping up a colon. Take the money away, and the parasites begin to question whether the host deserves to live.

But we’re nowhere near there yet. Right now, it’s blowing-shitloads-of-money-on-manifesto-launch o’clock. Sometimes I wonder where the money comes from, but then I remember, Oh right, the major parties colluded to shut down campaign finance regulation in this country, so until an apposite data dump… who the heck knows? And Mzansi being a perfect evocation of utopia, in which every child goes to bed with a full tummy, substantive issues are set aside to ask important questions such as: Who fills a stadium with more people wearing appropriately branded Chinese-made T-shirts? Who books better live acts? And which of those live acts simulates the sex act with more veracity?

So far, give it to the DA. This was like a #ZumaMustFall march with lots of actual black people, and also rap. There was a genuinely thrilling set by the artist Riky Rick, the now classic hump-a-drum moment, and a decent 20 minutes courtesy of the chanteuse Bucie. Not having promised to jam 4-million people into a 20,000 capacity stadium, the DA didn’t have to claim a “media agenda” with regard to the embarrassment of empty seats. They intricately rigged blue sheets over swathes of the stadium, and claimed that “in excess of 20,000” had showed up, which was probably about right.* Every detail was considered: the wi-fi network name was Freedom. Fairness. Opportunity. The password? Vote for change.

The difference between the ANC’s depressing gig in Port Elizabeth last week was striking. If the energy of these events reflects the energy of party structures on the ground, things are looking up for the DA in Gauteng. But these events are not polls, even if they are often confused for exactly that. Helen Zille was positively glowing when she surveyed the crowd – the largest, I was told, of any event in the party’s history. When I asked about last week’s ANC launch, she shrugged and said, “It’s a reflection of a party in decline.” And when I asked if this relative show of strength meant that the whole country was soon going to be forced to wear blue T-shirts and hump drums, she refused to take the bait. “I’m very cautious in politics,” she said demurely, “because you can lose an election by two votes. Remember, I became mayor [of Cape Town in 2006] by two votes.”

Which, very neatly, brings us to the manifesto itself.

***

Cape Town, Cape Town, Cape Town, and also: Midvaal.

Cape Town.

Cape Town, Cape Town, Cape Town, Cape Town, Midvaal, Cape Town, Cape Town, Cape Town. Cape Town, Cape Town, Cape Town, Midvaal, Cape Town, Cape Town.

Which is another way of saying that the DA is running on its record, and they spent most of the launch selling the relative advantages of living in the two major municipalities that best represent their interventionist, social democratic, neoliberal, pro-business brand. Slick commercials played on the huge screens flanking the Beyoncé-grade stage. They used the word “apartheid” reasonably often in their media, as in: it actually happened, and it left a big, un-erasable skid mark across our social fabric. Cape Town’s executive mayor Patricia de Lille, who along with Athol Trollip and several other party leaders (excluding Zille) addressed the crowd in tight 10-minute speeches, echoed the event swirling around her, which echoed the ethos of the party’s poobahs, which echoed the echo, when spoke of the efficiency, the “incorruptibility” of her administration. According to her, people deserve “programmes of redress through public policy interventions for meaningful reconciliation and a better future”

I think I know what that means. But the more I try to think about its meaning, all meaning dissipates. Richy McRichface Herman Mashaba, who hopes to become mayor of Johannesburg, represents the “blacks be doing it for themselves” vibe that inflects the party’s DNA. The party’s actual messaging insists upon something else, something softer – or rather, something harder: a metallic whirling Teutonic efficiency that transcends ideology, but somehow still retains an ideological bent, a tinge of what came before.

The DA may want to consider why their messaging doesn’t resonate with the “younger demographic” – the same kids either so enraged by the system that they’ve chosen to opt out of mainstream politics entirely, or the other kids who are setting their universities on fire. Perhaps several clues exist in the communities they insist prove their worth. Cape Town is – let’s be straight here – a very weird place. It demonstrates what happens when tick-tock efficiency exists within an unfair superstructure, when comprehensive and creative redress is eschewed in order to run the cleanest, most efficient unequal society on the planet. The DA hangs on to the concept of Rainbowism, but Cape Town, like everywhere else in the country, is a place of separateness.

What, then, are the DA offering – other than better separateness?

***

The stage ejaculated blue tinsel, and party president Mmusi Maimane bounded upon it. (In a new twist for the DA, he was flanked by two heavies in wraparound shades on his walk through the crowd, which, I hate to say it, made him seem more presidential. Fat men with guns will do that.) He wore a blue suit and a dress shirt without a tie, and stood before us brimful of youthful vigour – the anti-Jacob Zuma, the anti-gerontocrat.

Shortly before this occurred, handsomely packaged election manifestos were handed to members of the press. Titled “Change that moves South Africa forward again” and experienced in consort with the speech, they reinforced the DA story: when Jacob Zuma so rudely interrupted Thabo Mbeki’s reign, South Africa lost its way. The DA, the manifesto promised, will find the way again.

For those terrified by the prospect of Thatcher fanboy Mbeki being cloned ad-infinitum, the manifesto doesn’t offer much in the way of alternatives. Or rather, it offers the ANC’s National Development Plan, and promises to deliver on it – which, I’d wager, the DA is capable of. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your ideological point of view, and the manifesto went into some detail on all the big ticket election items: title deeds delivery, job creation, enhanced transportation networks, responsive governance, clean governance, service delivery, better policing.

All of these things happen in DA-run community. But they happen better for the better off.

When I look out at all of you,” bellowed Maimane, “I see the future of our country in all its glorious diversity. Our founding father, Nelson Mandela, brought us together to build a shared future for every South African – black and white.”

Mmusi Maimane promised change. “The face of poverty is still black,” he said. “And this is why it’s true when we say: the ANC governs as if black lives don’t matter.”

How will the DA go about delivering this alteration? Much the same way as they have in Cape Town – by being a more efficient, cleaner, nerdier, numbers-driven and generally kick-ass version of the 1998 African National Congress. If this is what you seek, voter-unit, you’re gonna dig the manifesto. If it seems a little short of the mark, perhaps you’d like to consider Kafka’s maxim: “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

The DA embraces bureaucracy, and promise away the slime. For the many who are in a revolutionary frame of mind, this will not be nearly enough. They want a new system, and the DA – once again – vows to be the best possible version of the current system. DM

* Never, ever believe a South African political party when they offer a number. It doesn’t matter what the number corresponds to—they’re likely lying. My guesstimate of 20,000 is exactly that: a thumb suck.

Photo: Supporters of Democratic Alliance (DA) attend the launch of the party’s election manifesto in Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 April 2016. EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND.

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