Opinionista Ian Von Memerty 6 February 2018

Dear DA: Day Zero is election day 2019, not May 2018

With all the coverage of Day Zero and Patricia de Lille the DA has to resist being distracted from its biggest challenge, the political El Niño of 2019. But how can the DA focus on an election 15 months away, when they daily have to manage an ongoing and unfolding natural disaster? Keep it simple. Keep it separate.

The DA has shown relentless growth at each election, climbing from 1.7% of the national vote in 1994 to 27% in 2016. Why? I believe there are two main reasons. First, their governmental track record. From clean audits, to increased housing delivery, to rising education results, to improved health care, to escalating employment. Where the DA governs, the issues that affect those trapped in the apartheid legacy, meaning the (former) base of the ANC, are being systematically eroded.

And for the DA to keep growing they have to consistently and methodically spread that message. No one else is going to do it for them. They cannot expect the news media to broadcast “the DA good news report”. The media will follow the newest and biggest story, that is its reality. Given the choice between a new Oscar Pistorius scandal and the latest Gupta Grab or reporting that this week 80 pensioners in Delft got houses for the first time – there is no choice from a news perspective.

So let’s accept that this year’s headlines will be about the water crisis. The DA has already made a lot of the tough decisions on the De Lille/ Day Zero crisis. De Lille (like Jacob Zuma) will be gone soon – because of corruption and mal-administration issues. The DA’s Administrative Amazon, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, with an unbeaten track record in problem solving, is now driving the drought rescue op. Both decisions, which attracted all sorts of outrage, are already showing results – Day Zero has been moved to mid-May, an extra month gained in three weeks, which is a real achievement.

But, no matter what action they take, whether popular or unpopular, the DA will still have no control over whether the rains will come this winter. If the rains don’t fall and there is no personal and political relief, 2018/2019 is going to be even harder for Cape Town, and so for the DA. So they need to keep wooing voters even as the headlines scream “disaster” every day.

South African elections have followed a consistent trend over the last 20 years. The DA has grown steadily, the ANC support has shrunk, now at an increasing speed, and new parties crop up in every election that do well at first, and then wither away; the one exception so far is the EFF.

Which brings us to reason number two for the DA’s electoral growth to date. Until 2016 they grew by running anti-ANC election campaigns. The DA started as an English-speaking liberal white party; then it successfully wooed the white Afrikaans voter after the Nats hopped into bed with the ANC; then it won over the forgotten Coloured and Asian nations, and now it has begun to nurture support among (equally dissatisfied and forgotten) black voters. All of those groups were susceptible to an anti-ANC campaign.

But, if they learnt anything from the 2016 elections they must have learnt that attacking the ANC did not win them large numbers of new black votes. After a very expensive and aggressive campaign, it is estimated that the DA black vote grew to 700,000 votes nationally in 2016, a mere 200,000 growth from half-a-million in 2014.

To achieve the growth it needs to win Gauteng, and enough of the national vote to potentially wield coalition power in 2019, it has to grow by a minimum of 40%. They must add at least 1.7 million voters to their current base of 4.1 million. And almost all of those voters are going to be black. Which means many of those votes will have to come from former ANC voters.

To make real gains, the DA must not only mobilise their existing bases, but they must win over large numbers of former ANC voters and potential abstainers. Which means they have to think differently this time around.

For them to grow fast enough in this election to achieve power they have to think and fight differently.

If they attack the ANC, they are also attacking the people who voted for the ANC. And that will be a huge mistake. Every attack on the ANC is an attack on someone who has voted for the ANC in the past. And why waste resources on attacking the ANC directly? The EFF and our media will be doing that already and they will do it better than the DA, and capture headlines because of stunt politics. Malema is a natural demagogue, Maimane is not.

Which is why it is vital that the DA has an election campaign that is out doing the job of selling the party NOW in a new way. Its future voters need to hear and understand the difference between the blue party and the yellow party. Their positive campaign is a version of “SA deserves more – more houses, more jobs, more safety”, “SA deserves better – better education, better healthcare, better delivery.” Followed by a daily, endless stream of facts, and individual human stories of how they have already changed people’s lives by bringing more South Africans better lives.

Their negative campaign should be comparative and not a frontal attack. “We do – they talk”. “They steal – we don’t”. “We deliver – they can’t”. “We kill corruption – they allow it”. Followed by an endless stream of comparative facts and stories of how people’s lives were changed before and after. Potential voters are going to have to hear these messages not once, but hundreds of times – and the media is not going to do that job.

For the DA to grow and achieve the 30%-50% increase in its vote that could see it as a coalition partner/ leader in 2019 it needs to act like a conglomerate. Run three different strategies, under one principled umbrella.

Strategise. Separate. Simplify.

  1. Pre-electionIt is vital that they are out there, today, tonight and tomorrow spreading the message via grassroots, activists, local radio stations, social media, pamphlets, pens, churches, stokvels. Telling future voters, “we are actually make things better”. The occasional high-profile visit, or advert, or press release is not going to do this. What is needed is the steady drip, drip, drip of information that changes people’s perceptions. The discontent with the ANC is already there. If the DA does not change hearts and minds by spreading their fact-driven message for the next 400 days, they will have lost the great political harvest that is ripe for the picking.
  1. GovernmentAs the official opposition it needs to shine the spotlight on the government, the president, and the party for every mistake they make. This they have done well – from lengthy legal battles to focused parliamentary oversight. The ANC will probably continue to provide them with an ongoing smörgåsbord of incompetence. But they have to oppose in a way that does not make the ANC voter feel attacked or responsible. And they have to keep their delivery record on track and up to speed.
  1. DroughtThey have to manage and minimise the Cape Town Water Crisis. Efficiently and calmly. The DA needs to ensure that a) no one goes thirsty b) hygiene, safety and sewerage are unaffected and c) that the effects on essential services and industry are minimised. Naturally, the media is delighted with the crisis because they know they have a daily headline, ranging from conspiracy theories to cure-all solutions to doomsday predictions, from now until the dams are full again. But the DA needs to fight that by making Cape Town believe that they have the problem(s) in hand. Calmly.

I place those three in order of importance deliberately. The last two are already in the party’s DNA. They have been the official opposition for 20 years – they know how to do that. They have also handled political and natural disasters before, often inherited from the ANC, so they will manage the drought and its terrible cost. But the most important task that awaits them as a party requires a change in their thinking. It is just as difficult to get a party to change its mind as it is a voter. But they have to do it, or they will stagnate, and their growth will be stunted.

They have entered the era of the politics of persuasion, not attack. There are large numbers of ANC voters who are not happy; just witness the ongoing service delivery demonstrations nationwide. Those rioters may be unhappy, but they have to be converted into actual DA votes. If the DA cannot persuade those discontented millions to trust them, winter rains and reconnected taps are not going to open the political floodgates.

Every time the DA attacks the “ANC” they are by definition blaming ANC voters as well as ANC leaders. And that will bring the two closer together, instead of separating them. If they are smart they will attack the ANC indirectly and not offend a potential voter. They can then offer her the reason to abandon a party that has betrayed her family and give her reasons to try “something better”. The Corruption Party, the Marikana Party, the Gupta Party etc., everyone already knows which party that is, they don’t have to name it. The implication is enough. But direct attack locks people into defence and so cements old loyalties.

Which is why it was heartening to read Maimane’s KwaZulu-Natal address this week, where he mentioned the ANC by name just three times. Maybe he has learnt the lesson from 2016. I hope so. But a speech to a party congress of the party faithful, while having the right tone and saying the right things, will count for little if the potential converts do not hear that message – again and again. And the media is not going to spread that message for them.

Priming voters takes lots of persuasion and proselytising, and that takes time. You don’t attract new converts by attacking their former religion. To convert, you show consistent conviction, belief, and an alternative. You lead them to a new way. Ask any missionary, any insurance salesman, or educator. Attack will not lead to conversion. Persuasion, constant repetition and reassurance might.

Because in 2019, if the DA does not find a new way to drill down into this new and untapped political aquifer, then its own political taps may start to run dry. DM

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