Opinionista Stephen Grootes 20 May 2013

DA, the agenda-setter

I'm not one to give credit easily. But sometimes one has to stop, and tip your cap to a good political operation. You know, Gwede Mantashe's taking hold of the Gupta story as it was breaking by releasing that statement when he did, or President Jacob Zuma's stop Malema Operation, or even, to an extent, Mangaung in general. But it's time to stop and tip the cap again. To the DA. Yes, really. The DA.

There is something about the DA that  – whenever it starts to make some kind of progress – seems to make columnists you think would vote for them, write as much as they can against them. (Sorry, and you are? You do look vaguely familiar… -Ed)

Look at what’s been written about the “Know your DA” campaign. There have been a few thoughtful pieces (particularly Jan Hofmeyer, and Richard Calland in the soon lamentably Dawes-less Mail & Guardian), but generally people have been shooting from the hip in their outrage. The general sentiment: how dare the DA try to “steal Mandela”?

Look at those last pictures of him, people! Madiba was stolen long ago.

But no matter. Now look at the other big political issues of the day. Nkandla and Gupta-gate, right?

And then think: which party is on the offensive? And which party is on the defensive? Who is framing events, creating a narrative and moving the agenda? And who is stuck on the back-foot, reacting to events, having to parry rather than thrust?

In the head-on scrum that is the electoral battle between the brains of Mantashe and Helen Zille, Mantashe’s now the one trying to wheel it through the 90 degree mark, hoping that the ref will blow his whistle. Zille, on the other hand, is the side with studs well and truly gaining traction.

Ah, but is it real traction, or is just in the commentariat? Is it just among us that pontificate for a living?

Well, there is actually some serious data to back up my claim.

For a start, two years ago, you would have had to look really hard to find anyone in the Alliance talking about the DA. Oh, there was the stuff about entrenched interests, and a young man who’s name I simply can’t recall right now used to go on about “White Apartheid Monopoly Capital”, but there was no real direct accusation made of the DA by senior Alliance leaders.

Now the SACP has pre-made, i.e. paid-for banners, in that glorious red of theirs, attacking them in blue. Blade Nzimande attacks them at every opportunity. And crucially, he doesn’t just do it during SACP meetings or rallies. He does it on the stage during January 8 celebrations, the ANC’s biggest annual shindig. Zwelinzima Vavi does it as well, and some Cosatu leaders seem to start frothing at the mouth at just the mention of “Madam Zille”.

And the ANC’s tighthead prop – the man with no. 3 on his jersey, G. Mantashe – gets in on the action too. And what we have is the ANC releasing statements attacking the DA. In other words, reacting.

So this presents us with a few issues to consider.

Firstly, and most importantly, if I am going to go with the Mantashe as the ANC’s tight-head prop analogy for a while, and if, as a nation, we are in the habit of giving these players nicknames (you know, Beeeeeaaaast, or Os), then what are we going to call Mantashe? Suggestions on Twitter, please.

But secondly, what is the playing field now, ahead of 2014?

Of course it’s too early to know what the main issues will be, but certain trends are already clear, and it’s obvious that’s what been an issue before will be an issue again. And the first factor to look at is Zuma himself on the election poster. Does that matter? Would it have an impact if that picture were somehow changed? Where do we as a nation stand on Zuma?

To be blunt, I don’t think we’ve really changed that much. If you loved him when you voted in 2009, you probably still love him now. If you hated him then, you probably hate him now. There’ll be some who are disappointed: that’s what happens when you are in government; you are the face of all the country’s problems. But broadly speaking, I don’t think where we stand on Zuma has changed that much. So we’ve got to look at what the Americans call the “undecideds”, the people who gave him a chance in 2009, but won’t now, or those who backed him because he wasn’t Mbeki (who would make probably the world’s worst tight-head prop), or those who just liked the cut of his jib.

And the biggest undecided group has got to be that which, for argument’s sake, I’ll call the urban black middle class vote. In short, people who have their kids in a Model C school. They are home-owners, live in perhaps Mondeor or Joburg’s sourthern suburbs, work in an office, and have middle-class interests.

It’s quite dangerous to make assumptions about groups of people, especially when you aren’t one of them. But I would place a small sum of money, say my monthly salary here at Daily Maverick [Stephen! In reality, YOU should be paying US to read this stuff! – Ed], that to this group of people the politics of identity, in other words, race, isn’t as strong as it used to be. It matters, sure. But throughout history, what really starts to matter is class. And if you are middle-class, you start to have middle-class interests.

You get your news now not through a political branch meeting, but from TV and radio, and websites, like this one. How a politicians speaks begins to matter. You consume the commentariat more you did in the past. Maybe, perhaps, political discussions brought home by your kids at university revolve around corruption and the daily scandals that assault us, rather than how much the ANC did to liberate the nation.

Of course the ANC isn’t stupid, and they have some of the best electoral brains in the business. There is a reason why Cyril Ramaphosa is now deputy. This is the group of people he’s going to woo. And in Zuma himself, some of the best political EQ the country has ever produced. Zuma will do rural KZN, Ramaphosa will spend his campaign firmly in Gauteng. Who in the ANC will do Marikana hasn’t yet been decided; perhaps the Youth League needs a bit more punishment.

The point of all of this is that in the past, the DA was pushed into reacting, and generally getting traction only in the media; now it seems things may be shifting. It’s hard to know for sure, but the ANC is in full-scale campaign mode. For goodness sake, it’s congratulating Kaizer Chiefs for winning the league and the people who won SAMA awards! There are volunteer meetings already. When the elections are almost a year away! Clearly their focus groups are telling them something. Their branches are hearing things as well.

And the DA is slowly, but surely, beginning to set the agenda. It’s going to be a fun ride until polling day. DM

Grootes is an Eyewitness News Reporter, and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.

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