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21 November 2017 21:19 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jan Hofmeyr

Blue T-Shirts and Red Herrings

  • Jan Hofmeyr
    Jan Hofmeyr.jpg
    Jan Hofmeyr

    Jan Hofmeyr heads the Policy and Analysis Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He conducts and manages policy-orientated research and has a specific interest in the variables that affect social and economic inclusivity in transitional societies. He belongs to the Bertelsmann Foundation's group of international Transformation Thinkers and has collaborated on the Foundation's Transformation and Sustainable Governance Indices.

The ANC and the DA lately seem to be in competition regarding who can offend the legacy of Nelson Mandela more. And this could have a very interesting fall-out in the political landscape.

Over the past weeks most commentary on these pages have been dismissive of the DA’s latest media campaign to provide an alternative anti-Apartheid narrative, which locates it and its previous incarnations in the trenches of the fight against racial oppression.

I am equally skeptical. Call it leaps in logic or flights of fancy; the official opposition’s ‘untold story’ requires too much mental gymnastics to keep up with. It draws questionable linkages, understates the role of critical moments and personalities, and exaggerates the influence of others, all to come up with a seamless picture that ultimately is too good to be true.

This is not to deny that over the years certain personalities associated with the DA and its predecessors have been or are committed to a to non-racial democracy, but to suggest that the values it espouses today are akin to that of the ANC of Nelson Mandela is specious. If this was the case, why did it not simply join the ANC at the time? Why did its predecessor, the Democratic Party, choose instead a marriage of convenience with the last remnants of the Apartheid state, the New National Party (NNP)?

Equally questionable, and still debated within the DA itself, is the suggestion that it should be seen as a torchbearer of the liberal tradition that inspired Helen Suzman, the central character of its new narrative. Unfortunately the party cannot wish away the fact that the DP/NNP merger brought with it a large conservative constituency that had to be placated with friendly policies and positions in its top decision-making structures. Therefore, even if we assumed a transformative post-2000 agenda amongst the ‘old liberals’, the pressures of real politik inevitably would have required the dilution of its content to guarantee a truce with the ‘old Nats’.

So what does the DA stand to gain from this campaign to provide an alternative struggle history? Is this indeed a futile exercise in revisionism that will come back to haunt it, as many columnists have suggested, or is there something more to it? I suspect there is, and here’s why.

Recall the scene in the political drama, The Ides of March, when the campaign whizz (Ryan Gosling) instructs his PR team to leak a spurious story about an opposing candidate. When they reply that there is no substance to the allegations, the response of Gosling’s character is something along the lines of: “I don’t care. I want to hear him defend himself in public.” In this instance the accuracy of the facts was a matter of secondary importance. The primary objective was to force the opponent into defensive mode, and allow his candidate to communicate freely and stay on message.

The real motive of the “Know your DA Campaign”, it seems to me, may be something similar. It is not to win over new votes, but to execute a pre-emptive strike on what it anticipates the theme of the ANC’s 2014 election campaign to be – tradition and continuity. Getting the ANC on the defensive will give the DA far more leeway to communicate its somewhat inflated clean administration and good governance slogans to established and target constituencies.

Although there is little doubt that the ruling party will once again win with a large majority, it will also be one of the toughest campaigns that it has conducted to date. Victory is all but secured, but a slip below 60% of the vote at a moment where it celebrates twenty years in power will be almost as devastating as defeat. In 2009 more voting age citizens abstained from voting than those who voted for the ANC. Between the 2004 and 2009 elections the ANC increased its number of voters by only 7% (770,000); the corresponding figure for the DA was 53% (1 million). Another such performance and it will signal a party in steady decline.

It is therefore under pressure to develop a highly compelling campaign strategy. It may not be easy to do. In an age of information excess and short attention spans, where election outcomes are increasingly being determined by short, simple, cogent messaging, the ANC’s accomplishments are not easy to communicate. Its track record in government has been a mixed one, consisting of major achievements in some areas, stable progress in others, but also several failures (the past year being especially punishing). In other words, it is a ‘glass half full’ scenario, which from a strategic communication point of view is particularly difficult to convey to voters.

As a result it is likely that the ANC will stick to its tried and tested theme of liberation and continuity, especially because it dovetails with the commemoration of two decades of democracy. Delivery will feature where its record is unequivocal, but the focus will fall on liberation legacy and the suggestion that the current government represents a continuation of this tradition. Elaborate centenary celebrations earlier this year and countless memorial lectures offered clear indication that this will indeed form the cornerstone of its electoral onslaught in 2014. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if this narrative becomes interwoven into further festivities that celebrate the triumph of democracy in the run-up to the election.

But this will probably be the last time that it will be able to derive so much mileage from such a campaign message. With a population of which two thirds are now younger than 35, this theme may be losing some of its currency. The party also acknowledged as much in its strategic documents in the run-up to the Mangaung conference. One of the few remaining links that transcend generations and give popular credibility to claims of continuity within the ANC, is former president Nelson Mandela. And this is where the DA’s campaign comes in. To visually portray the ANC’s biggest asset and potential trump card, arm in arm with a DA icon and claim that it (the DA) has become the true custodian of Mandela’s values, amounts to what those in military circles would call a ‘scrambling of the enemy signal.’ Politically it means to frustrate, confuse and cast doubt to the point that the intended message becomes too complex to decipher.

Has the campaign struck a nerve? Judged by the size of the guns that the ANC has trudged out in recent weeks to refute the message, it seems so. But probably most indicative of the discomfort that it caused thus far, has been the spectacle last week where the party paraded a frail Mandela, surrounded by top ANC leaders, to the media. With party minions swarming around a clearly disoriented Mandela, their cell phone cameras flashing in his face, the party in its desperation to show that ‘he is still ours’, scored an own goal. If anybody wondered why the DA has been less than vocal about the incident thus far, it may be that the link between what it started and its consequence – the tragic commodification of our most loved citizen - will be too obvious.

Instead the official opposition would quietly have watched the Twitter streams of their target constituency and see @MyANC­­_ get torn apart. This, the free airtime, and ample page space that the media has devoted to its campaign thus far cannot be measured in monetary value. And therefore its ultimate success will not be judged by the number of new members that it attracts, but by the extent to which it frustrates the ability of the ANC to stay on message with a fast-changing voting demographic.

In a meeting last week I heard a young South African in her twenties (some in the ruling party would call her clever) share her dismay with the DA campaign. Annoyed with its tone and narrative, she felt insulted. But in the same breath she exclaimed: “The DA has as little right to the legacy of Madiba as the ANC of today.” 1-0 to the DA, I thought. DM

Hofmeyr heads the Policy and Analysis Unit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR)

  • Jan Hofmeyr
    Jan Hofmeyr.jpg
    Jan Hofmeyr

    Jan Hofmeyr heads the Policy and Analysis Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. He conducts and manages policy-orientated research and has a specific interest in the variables that affect social and economic inclusivity in transitional societies. He belongs to the Bertelsmann Foundation's group of international Transformation Thinkers and has collaborated on the Foundation's Transformation and Sustainable Governance Indices.

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