Election fever reached its crescendo this weekend with South Africa’s three biggest political parties rounding off their campaigns in massive shows of force. The ANC began the 2016 local government campaign on the back foot in Nelson Mandela Bay in April but showed on Sunday that it was back in the game, filling two stadiums in Johannesburg for its Siyanqoba rally. The Economic Freedom Fighters took its last mass event to Polokwane in the final push to win control of at least one municipality in Limpopo. On Saturday, the Democratic Alliance took its battleship to Soweto where it hopes to slice into the ANC’s support base. It has been a messy, bloody campaign but it ends with democracy in full colour. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
There was a marked difference in the ANC, DA and EFF final rallies this weekend. That very difference is what could inform how people vote on Wednesday.
Of course the rallies are all about the extravaganza – working the crowds into a frenzy, the roar of motorbikes, the star power and the message from the leader. It is the essence of South African politics – garish and fantastical.
The ANC had to bring its biggest weapon: brand power. From the elderly woman with swollen ankles, struggling on her single crutch towards the bus that will take her from the stadium to her home, to the trendy young babes in designer gear, that is what they come for – the ANC’s big brand. It is not what the ANC does or fails to do. It is definitely not about what President Jacob Zuma says or does not say. It is about what the ANC is. And the ANC is big. Winnie Mandela big.
People travelled in 2,000 buses from all parts of Gauteng to fill Ellis Park and the adjacent Johannesburg Stadium on Sunday. Crowds also gathered in stadiums in Durban, East London and Cape Town to watch the Johannesburg rally on big screens. They all got what they came for – the grand display of Brand ANC and the excitement of being part of it.
Will any of them remember what Zuma’s message was? Please. Zuma reading the written text of a speech is like a pilot rattling off information about the altitude and direction he is flying for a full hour – you hear bits of it and tune out for much of the rest. But the crowd can always sense when Zuma is on the homestretch and about to sing his trademark songs “Yinde Indlela” and “Umshini Wam”. It is then that the stadium really comes alive. Zuma’s singing and dancing skills are the biggest assets of his presidency.
The EFF has 101 years less of history than the ANC to work from. But its constituency does not care about history. It cares what Julius Malema has to say. Malema does not have the benefit of the government machinery or the burden of service delivery failures. He has the ability to recognise what his constituency wants to hear, and says it.
The EFF is selling a new “Robin Hood” deal to its constituency – primarily the poor and the disenchanted. The rich and the political elite have had it too good for too long. It’s time to shake things up and turn them upside down. The poor must have land and access to the economy. They need bigger houses and social grants should be doubled. For those whose lives are a daily struggle and who have run out of patience with the promise of “a better life for all”, the EFF provides new hope.
The EFF says it wants control of one municipality to show what it can do. The party wants to prove its naysayers wrong, to show that its promises and manifesto targets are in fact achievable. But that is not all Malema is selling. He wants a reorientation of people’s minds. His message at the EFF’s Tshela Thupa rally in Polokwane on Sunday was consistent with the message throughout the campaign: Stop accepting handouts, take what should belong to you.
“Leave food parcels, which you only receive around election time, you will only get them again after five years,” Malema said. “Stop loving t-shirts more than your own future, your children’s future and the country’s future. They have been giving you t-shirts from 1994 until now.
“You have t-shirts including those of former President Nelson Mandela and now you are sitting at home with a Jacob Zuma t-shirt. You cannot eat, live or get work from a t-shirt. You are prepared to vote for corruption in exchange of a t-shirt!”
The EFF has been able to draw larger crowds to its campaign events than the DA but one of the big questions that will be answered this week is whether this will translate into votes. Now a fully-fledged political party, the EFF has to prove its mettle and popularity. If it fails to improve its percentage share of the vote, it might be forced to change strategy, which will disorientate its base. For now, the draw card is its radicalism.
The DA used its final Phetogo rally in Dobsonville, Soweto, to profile its “dream team” of mayoral candidates, while Mmusi Maimane again hammered the message that his party rather than the ANC was the one upholding the legacy of Nelson Mandela. He mentioned the founding president’s name 19 times in his speech and then, to further irritate the ANC and its allies, also quoted Chris Hani.
This has been the first election campaign that the DA has really rattled the ANC, mostly with its claim to Mandela and momentum in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. This prompted retaliations from the ANC, including Zuma calling Maimane a stooge and a snake and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe declaring on Sunday morning: “The DA stole Mandela”.
Despite the backlash, Maimane keeps pushing the line that voters should preserve Mandela’s legacy by voting DA.
“Our opponents will tell you lots of lies about the Democratic Alliance. But our record where we govern speaks for itself.
“We are the only party that is carrying the values of Nelson Mandela forward. We are doing it for Madiba,” Maimane said at the rally.
The DA was the only party to profile its mayoral candidates on stage with Maimane. The ANC and EFF candidates had no show on the final big stage of the election campaign (the EFF has not named its mayoral candidates at all). While Maimane was the star of the show, particularly on his home turf of Dobsonville, the dancing line-up of rainbow-coloured mayoral candidates was very much a “squad goals” moment.
The character of the DA is slowly evolving under Maimane, evident in his rather extraordinary message on political party loyalty:
“In a democracy, you don’t need to be loyal to a party forever. When a party betrays you, you have a chance to punish it. A vote is not a tattoo that stays with you forever, or that everybody can see,” Maimane said, obviously speaking to traditional ANC voters who have no political home now.
“You are free to change your vote, and your vote is your secret. Just because you voted for the ANC before, does not mean that you must vote for the ANC again. You don’t need to pledge your lifelong allegiance to any party. You are free to make a different choice at every election.”
It is quite unusual for a political party leader to try to encourage shifting loyalties rather than to do a hard sell for people to sign up for life. Maimane, probably informed by DA polling, knows that there are still a significant number of people who are undecided or unsure about their vote. It is these people who feel hurt and betrayed by the ANC that he is coaxing over to the DA for a sort of trial run.
The ANC, DA and EFF are just three of 204 parties contesting the 2016 local government elections – 68% more than the number that participated in the 2011 poll. This alone tells how fractured and diverse South Africa’s politics has become.
Over the past few months, politicians have saturated communities across the country, pressing flesh, kissing babies, stirring crowds, blackmailing the vulnerable and giving hope. There has been hot air and cold lies, big dreams and empty promises, bloodshed and broken lives.
On Wednesday, 26.3 million will have the chance to decide our future. Our country is messy but the pulse of democracy is certainly something to celebrate. DM
Photo (l to R): President Zuma takes the mic at the ANC’s Siyanqoba rally at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg. (Greg Nicolson); Leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, addressing thousands of people who attended the parties final pre election rally in Soweto, Johannesburg , South Africa, 30 July 2016. EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND; EFF’s Julius Malema greets his supporters during his campaign ahead of the August 3 local elections, in Etwatwa, a township near Benoni, South Africa July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
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