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ROAD TO ELECTIONS ANALYSIS

The DA flag ad — what was the opposition thinking? The party answers our burning questions

The DA flag ad — what was the opposition thinking? The party answers our burning questions
DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Victoria O’Regan)

The centrepiece at the launch of the DA’s latest election advert includes the burning of a South African flag as an allegory of what could happen to South Africa if an ANC-EFF-MK government were to govern the country.

It’s a busy time on the election campaign trail. On Sunday evening, I was trying to squeeze in a late invitation to senior journalists to meet with the DA top team at its HQ in Bruma, Johannesburg. With a day spent in Khutsong and Merafong reporting on the EFF on the West Rand and trying to chase the former deputy president David Mabuza, who has been coaxed out of retirement to hit the campaign trail for the ANC, I didn’t make it.

While I usually enjoy the slick expertise of DA functions and learnt a lot about candidate selection when we met its top young candidates recently, I was happy to have missed this occasion. The centre-piece of the event was the unveiling of the party’s fourth advert, which included the burning of a South African flag as an allegory of what could happen to South Africa if an ANC-EFF-MK government were to govern the country.

The flag, it has to be said, is returned to its full state as the critical message unfurls: the DA holds the key to the nation’s longevity. A firestorm hit the party after it touched people on their studio.

We love our flag, and seeing it burn has got many people seething, including the former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and others.

Commentators have pointed out that part of free expression is the right to burn a flag. It’s true. But the ad felt contrived and ill-considered to me. The flag is a beautiful symbol of what joins us when so much divides us.

It is adopted across our divides to stretch in its chaos of colours to bind us together at moments when violence, the precarity of life here for so many and the fractures of our past could so easily cause disintegration. It is the flag we unfurl to join us in moments that make us smile — a big rugby win, an improved Bafana Bafana score, an election successfully concluded. ‘A ‘squeeze’ ad’ — what this is — brings out voters to help a party in its last mile.

The DA has a tough campaign with competition on its left and right flanks. Start-ups like ActionSA (led by former DA mayor Herman Mashaba), Rise Mzansi, and Bosa (led by former DA leader Mmusi Maimane) are hurting. On its conservative, nationalist flank, the party is feeling the heat from the Freedom Front Plus (for the white vote) and the Patriotic Alliance (for the coloured vote).

A screenshot of the DA’s election campaign video, which shows a South African flag burning. (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

While its smart young campaigners may consider all the attention the ad is getting to be the job done, is it? The party has a responsibility beyond winning elections. As the official opposition, it is a critical agent of social cohesion or, more simply, keeping us together when so much could rent us asunder.

Here’s what we were thinking:

Ashor Sarupen, first deputy chairperson of the DA Federal Council, responded to Daily Maverick’s questions.

“This is our fourth advert, and nobody has commented on the others, which surprises me. I would have thought responsible journalism would also want to look at a campaign holistically and see the overarching message,” Sarupen stated.

Question: What was the purpose of the ad?

Answer: The ad aims to draw voters’ attention to the fact that even though South Africa is on the verge of political change, there are two options available to voters regarding what that change will look like.

MK has called for the scrapping of the constitution and replacing it with a system of parliamentary supremacy (Apartheid-style), and the EFF has demanded control of the fiscus. The ANC seems ready to give away all of South Africa’s institutions and safeguards to stay in power if the municipal arrangements are anything to go by. Our constitution, institutions, and safeguards are represented by the flag, and they are at risk in this election.

When we say to voters, ‘imagine a coalition between the ANC, violent EFF and Zuma factions’ is when the flag burns — because that is exactly what these parties have in mind. It is a matter of public record now that the EFF and MK have grand designs that will destroy our constitutional order and precious stability. It is jarring to see this visually represented, but the stakes are that high.

The ad ends with the *restoration* of the flag — which is only possible if voters unite behind an alternative that respects our constitution and institutions. This restoration is overlayed with the message “Unite to Rescue South Africa” and clearly says to voters that in this election, the path to protecting and defending our flag, our constitution, our democracy and our institutions is by voting for an alternative to the coalition of corruption.

Q: It’s a so-called ‘squeeze ad’— who is the party squeezing? How do you balance the politics of elections with the responsibility of social cohesion and unity symbolised by our flag?

A: It is not irresponsible to warn voters that the path to destruction lies in a government that is dominated by the ideas of MK and the EFF. They are the actual threat to social cohesion and unity – they scapegoat South Africans based on race with very little blowback from the press. We are trying to squeeze undecided voters who want to protect, defend and rescue South Africa.

Q: Has the blowback surprised you?

A: The blowback is only on X, which, as we all know, is dominated by bots and is not the real world. Unfortunately, too much of the South African commentary class gets ensnared by the discourse on X. We maintain that an ANC-EFF-MK coalition will reduce South Africa to ashes, and we are only surprised at how many commentators seem to think that such a coalition won’t be a disaster. DM

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