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Opinionista

Why the thick middle remain hopelessly stuck in the thick present of South Africa’s politics

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Jon Cherry is a business strategist and publisher whose focus is innovation and building better brands.

Politics is no longer the stale domain of old men who like to debate the minutiae of dull details like slight policy shifts and tax reform. It has been transformed into a dynamic landscape of relevant discourse where the true dreams, needs and ideas of young people carry weight and where new images of the future that resonate with the world’s forward trajectory are fit for purpose and worthy of support.

“The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” ― Maya Angelou

It has been nearly 16 years since Barack Obama became the 44th US President.

Back in 2008, it was a revolutionary act for a presidential candidate to use innovative mediums like social media and graphic design to build electoral support and conjure up hope in place of widespread nihilism. But Obama’s strategy was to appeal to America’s overlooked youth, desperate for change and a radical new future that the emerging digital era was finally promising.

Obama was David Plouffe’s (his lauded political strategist) dream. He was young. Had the charisma of a seasoned campaigner and was a particularly commanding public speaker who arrested the collective imagination of the US and the world as a desperately needed alternative to the staid, tired political quagmire that the US had become.

Changing face of politics

Seven years ago a young woman named Jacinda Ardern became the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand through her hands-on approach as the world’s first ‘political influencer’. Again Ardern was a breath of fresh air on the stuffy stage that hosts the usual parade of political leaders; sharing a constant stream of self-shot Instagram stories with citizens throughout her term. She presented us all with an excellent example of what a compassionate, kind, real modern politician looks and behaves like; successfully steering New Zealand through a global pandemic and a terrible terrorist attack in a manner that we have never seen before from a Head of State.

Just four years ago Sanna Marin became one of the world’s youngest national leaders when she was elected as Finland’s 46th Prime Minister at just 34 years old. Young, energetic and full of innovative ideas as to how Finland should see and create its political future were what got her into office. Being young, energetic and full of ideas… as to how to spend a weekend with friends is also what led her, unfortunately, out again.

The point is that politics, it’s been shown over the past one and a half decades, is no longer the stale domain of old men who like to sit on uncomfortable benches and debate the minutiae of dull details like slight policy shifts and tax reform. It has been transformed into a dynamic landscape of relevant discourse where the true dreams, needs and ideas of young people carry weight and where new images of the future that resonate with the world’s forward trajectory are fit for purpose and worthy of support.

SA’s old order endures

Through this sharpened lens I now observe the autumn blossoming of the usual street pole posters in the build-up to our own national elections. Even back when there was no real choice, the illusion of options was presented to us through posters as a kind of parliamentary pageantry.

Nothing has changed; it’s the same tired rhetoric as before. Old faces, forgettable sayings; the past just pushed forward into an extrapolated familiar future that doesn’t really offer any of us anything different to what we’ve always had. Even the slogans and colours seem to be a rerun of history.

It’s unclear as to why the various political parties even exist as separate options on the ballot. All of them have the same offering; a dramatic promise to unseat ‘the painfully flawed incumbent’. The only discernible differentiator between them is a different old face. The task for the voter is then to ‘simply pick your favourite colour and assign your cross there’. The choices available are binary: broken or anti-broken.

We are told repeatedly that the youth couldn’t give a damn about South African politics; who’s to blame them? The only party that seems to have any focus beyond the thick-present is the EFF. And then their vision of the future appears to be an overtly Dystopian one that draws its primary power from history, rather than from a mentally-sound idealisation of what anyone actually wants.

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA youth not apathetic but no longer believe elections are best path to change

How is it that a country that is so blessed with human creativity; one that has an inspiring history bristling with pioneering leaders, who against all odds, envisaged and created better futures, doesn’t appear to have what it takes to put together a picture of the future that we can all believe in…and vote to bring in existence?

Where is our ‘Yes we can!’ grassroots movement? Do we not have a million Edith Childs in this country that can inspire our political leaders with fresh ideas?

For smaller political parties hoping to strategically gain some traction in the upcoming national election, there appears to be an unprecedented opportunity to stand out that nobody seems to have spotted. While everyone else fights vehemently to say exactly the same rational, immediate problem-solving thing; there is the option (still very much available) to hold a higher, esoteric position of ‘creator of hope for the future of South Africa’.

What is there to lose by adopting this strategy? Well, nothing really. Any good marketing person will tell you that to truly sell an idea to people you can’t engage with their rational brains; you need to tap into their emotionally-ruled subconscious to affect them. Nelson Mandela was immensely skilled at this; think back to the 1995 Rugby World Cup and his wearing of Francois Pienaar’s No 6 jersey.

South Africa’s population pyramid has a fat middle — meaning that most South Africans alive today were born after 1984. Politicians call this cohort ‘the youth’ and lament their political disengagement. Marketers label them ‘millennials’ and curse their disloyalty to anything. Call them whatever you like to help make better sense of their behaviour, but these are South Africans that have endured a helluva lot and survived. They’ve gotten through a global pandemic holding down a job online while schooling children at home and worrying that their parents might die. They’ve endured rolling blackouts for more than half their lives. They’ve survived layoffs and downturns from a few global recessions and a near-collapse of the state thanks to ‘leaders’ who claimed to have their idealistic parent’s best interests at heart. Understandably they’re a little skeptical of politicians and politics.

Old mechanisms for ‘change’

Tactics that worked when Dallas was still on TV after the news on a Monday night are not going to land as well in 2024.

South Africans don’t need anyone to ‘rescue us’, we’re more than capable of figuring shit out for ourselves. ‘We need new leaders’?: insightful observation, Einstein.

What would be worthy of our time is a political partner who could enable the emergence of a new future that makes plausible sense to us all. A future that is propelled by the best of who we are as a nation. Leverages our obvious strengths. Acts to economically enable those who can; and protect those, who might need more help, to be able to do it for themselves in time.

What we need are a few options that are grounded in a worldview that thinks about the future in a fresh, creative way. A party that is excited about ‘what could be’ and aims to create the conditions under which we can explore those possibilities, instead of just holding onto a thick political present that has endured for as long as I can remember.

We are clearly not going to see that kind of thing happening in this country this time around.

Even though Obama’s 2008 strategist wrote and published a book detailing The Obama Team’s winning approach to changing politics in the United States; those lessons in innovative campaigning don’t seem to have made their way here as yet.

The future is still on hold for us…for now. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Grenville Wilson says:

    Mmusi Maimane for President!

  • Pet Bug says:

    Lovely phrase “… the autumn blossoming of the usual street pole posters…”

  • Tjaard du Plessis says:

    uhm ja…I like this article in that it tries to break the mold of old ways of doing to move with the times outside governments traditional thinking. Picture us (and that goes for the world governments at large as well) as a chicken in an egg that has to break out to the nature outside. WE the people are the chick with the politicians (government) the shell that has to change to get to the future. Governments are evolving very very slow and are still operating as 100 – 200years or more ago and that will not keep working for the future. I see the GenZ youth and they want stff to happen instantanoeusly and get frustrated if it does not thus the future will move in that direction. Just a thought

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      “as in 100 – 200 years or more ago” reminds me of the American supreme court justices .. some of who believe they know exactly what their ‘founding fathers’ meant when they wrote their constitution … who refer to themselves as ‘textualists’ … as if language has remained static over the decades and centuries … and not evolved ! Documents written before the invention of atomic and nuclear bombs are an example.

  • ST ST says:

    The older generation need to retire. The good ones can keep guiding. There’s a lot of trauma that they are consciously or subconsciously passing on to the youth. Things don’t change coz we keep passing ignorance and helplessness. Unfortunately, we seem to be failing to learn what great thinkers like Einstein knew long ago

    The youth can get things done quicker. For better or worse…mistakes will be made in the speeding up. But clear we need new ideas, new mistakes. Most of us quite bored with the same ole.

  • Murray Izzett says:

    Piercing observation about the opposition being united around anti-broken. I really like the idea of a party promoting itself on hope. I did get the impression that the likes of Rise Mzanzi and Changes Starts Now sort of had this in mind. If that is so was the missing piece then a magnetic, dynamic, charming, leader? Oh for more Obamas and Mandelas

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