Opinionista Ian Von Memerty 4 July 2018

For a moment, the DA almost had a message

The DA is so busy either attempting to defend and deflect, with endless news releases and conferences – or trying to reinvent itself into god knows what they hope will change media perceptions – that it forgets where its power is.

The latest jobs stats show that three quarters of all jobs created in South Africa in the past year were created in the Western Cape (125,000), despite a crippling drought in the area.”

This game-changing sentence was buried in the fifth paragraph of Mmusi Maimaine’s weekly Bokomasa. Imagine if three provinces had managed that, and the other six had equalled it – that would be 500,000 jobs created, and we would be on the path to a richer, more equal South Africa. Instead, for nearly a year now Day Zero and Patricia de Lille and coalition (non)problems have been that which define the party.

And that wasn’t the DA’s only success last week. Day Zero (now unlikely to happen) has been moved to the end of 2019. This “doomsday”, pronounced as being inevitably on track for April 10 2019 by mayor Patricia de Lille, is basically fixed. And in a hat trick of news of success, in the same week Joburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay metros all got ratings upgrades from the international financial ratings agency Moodys.

In short, the DA’s greatest selling point? The Facts. The guarantee that it can offer is… (drum roll here because lord knows they won’t be giving one)… its track record compared to the competition. Not that the general public knows it.

From soaring healthcare and education results in the Western Cape to clean governance and service delivery awards in its municipalities, to taking over an insolvent Oudtshoorn, and the devastating inherited deficits of Cape Town, Tshwane, and Joburg and turning them into budget surpluses, to the jaw-dropping year-on-year growth of Midvaal for over 15 years – it has outrun its competitors like Caster Semenya.

It has a tidal wave of positive, life-changing, personal stories that it could use. And it doesn’t. Why? The DA will claim that it issues press releases and tweets and this info is available on its website. So what?

If the party is to succeed at the ballot box its potential voters need to know what it does. And they need to know those stories. They don’t. Why? Because the DA has not found a way to tell them. If these future voters even know of the DA, they know it as it has been defined for them by the ANC – “white and elitist”.

Instead, the DA blindly relies on press conferences to a media which doesn’t print good news; it also depends on social media – which has clearly shown that users stay in their own comfort zones so new information does not spread. The DA does not equip grass-roots activists with easy, user-friendly messages and techniques. And those things work. Everywhere.

In New York, Alicia Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old teacher with a second job working at a bar to pay off student debt, defeated a 10- time congressional incumbent and the fourth most powerful Democrat in the US Congress. He spent five times more than she did, she was 30% percent behind in the polls weeks before the election, but won the Democratic Primary by 15%.

How?

First, her campaign was grass-roots driven. She did not have the money for expensive advertising campaigns so she used volunteers and they went door to door, phone to phone. Second, she had a simple clear message: “no one should be too poor to live in America”.

Third, she ignored the polls – because they concentrate on who has voted before. Instead she got out new voters by making them believe that their vote could change the future.

And if this sounds like liberal spin, well the truth is she used the same techniques Donald Trump did. He spent half of what Hillary Clinton did – and won. The media coverage of him and his campaign was overwhelmingly hostile, even among most conservative media – and he won.

His message was simple: “Make America Great Again”, aimed at a frightened mass of white people who thought they were increasingly irrelevant and swamped. His grass-roots campaign meant that his rallies were events, and he repeated his message endlessly and created a momentum and excitement about empowering his base. (Admittedly he had some dubious assistance from WikiLeaks, the Russians, James Comey and a media playing the dangerous game of Mutual Equivalency). He ignored the polls, bypassed the media’s “opinions” and his message was simple – us against them.

And the DA needs to learn those lessons. One simple message. Then that message has to be powered at the grass-roots level. Ignore the headlines, opinionistas and polls. You don’t need to spend money in the confusing, contradictory, crowded world of social and mainstream media – you need to arm your activists.

Instead it plays follow-the-media-leader trying to catch up with Cyril Ramaphosa’s semi-impressive start and Julius Malema’s hijacking of headlines as he creates national hysteria with the land issue. And it allows something like the Patricia de Lille debacle to define it for almost a year.

It is so busy either attempting to defend and deflect with endless news release and conferences – or trying to reinvent itself into god knows what they hope will change media perceptions – that it forgets where its power is.

We make things better. We do more.”

Of course, the reality of politics is that it would also need a negative message and “We make things better – They’re corrupt” or “We do more – They destroy” are pretty succinct and provable.

If only the DA campaigned as effectively as it governed – how different its future might look. Instead it sounds aggrieved and isolated. If the DA could stop panicking and use its greatest asset working from the bottom up it would be using its most powerful tool. A grass-roots activist without tools or a story that grabs voters is an unarmed foot soldier. An unarmed and untrained army is essentially useless. It doesn’t matter how many directives the central command issues – if the army is not in the right place with the right weapons and the right training, it will lose.

If only its future voters had seen what I almost missed in paragraph five of Mmusi Maimaine’s weekly Bokomasa. For a moment I could see a clear message – but it was quickly drowned among the verbiage of confusion. DM

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