Never in the 17 years of democracy has the DA been driven to appeal so passionately, so desperately and in some ways so comically to the black voter. Launching its manifesto outside Pretoria, in Mamelodi, the DA (leader) has been doing a lot of “black things” lately. Helen Zille has not missed an opportunity to throw in the odd Xhosa word or phrase during interviews — sometimes unnecessarily and even inappropriately. Add to this the dancing, the singing and sloganeering that goes on in DA rallies. Even Brenda Fassie’s Vul’indlela, the soundtrack of Thabo Mbeki’s famous election victories, has been reclaimed by the DA.
From the scandal of an all-male provincial cabinet — chosen on “merit” — not so long ago, Zille has now teamed up with two very articulate black women. The faces of the three women have made up one of the most impressive election posters of the 2011 local elections. As well as reclaiming Fassie, the DA is now portraying itself as the true bearer of the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Positing the Cape Town metro as a model, the DA suggestion to the black voter living elsewhere in the country has been simple: “We can and will do for your village, city and town what we have done for Cape Town.” There is a tacit admission, almost, that the DA growth among white and coloured voters is close to saturation point. The only sensible direction left for growth is black-wards. But has the DA done enough?
Never in the 17 years of democracy has the ANC been driven to appeal so passionately, so laboriously and so deliberately to its liberation history. Until now the ANC’s liberation credentials simply spoke for themselves. Not anymore. As if reading from the same script, speaker after speaker — priests, imams and sangomas included — at the Siyanqoba rally on Sunday, May 15 2011, sought to remind the audience of what the ANC had done for them and the country. Throughout this campaign the history and mandate of the ANC was described, portrayed and sold almost as sacred, the few half-hearted confessions of guilt and failure notwithstanding.
A recurring subtext, sometimes a pretext, stated by various ANC leaders, was that voting for the ANC was a historic duty and a sacrosanct calling. This rather important point, from the point of view of the ANC, was sometimes cheapened and trivialised by exaggerated, if also insensitive, suggestions that “voting for the ANC would lead to blessings from God and the gods alike”. In a sense this trend started in the 2009 national elections. To be fair it started, albeit in a sophisticated manner, when Mbeki’s speeches, in his last days, comprised two seemingly constant items: a list of historical achievements and an increasing smattering of Bible verses.
In these elections the ANC has been very deliberate in invoking the likes of Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo, Peter Mokaba and others. But how and why has the ANC been reduced to such basic and blunt means of connecting to the “its” people? Rattled by service-delivery protests, flustered by a disastrous election candidate list process, distressed by inopportune scandals affecting prominent leaders, riddled with feuds and contestations internal to the ANC and those involving alliance partners, faced with a DA, which is taking the fight to traditional ANC strongholds, the ANC has staged one of its most poorly organised election campaigns ever. It was only in the last week of the election campaign that its election machinery seemed to get together when well-publicised door-to-door campaigns and big rallies were organised.
Will the DA’s “black-to-the-future” strategy work? The DA is prudent to realise that the future is black. It is the only future available to the DA and ANC. But one hopes it recognises the full meaning of this. It is at once an opportunity and a dilemma. Historically, in most spheres of life, when blacks move in large numbers with the intention to stick around, whites move out. Can the DA cope with a real and massive influx of assertive blacks who come not merely to vote and to be led, but to contribute and lead? Is the DA willing to reinvent totally and completely? That is the question the DA must answer for itself if it is to really connect with the black voter. Is this the election where the DA breaks through the black glass ceiling? Some forecasters are convinced that the DA national support will grow. We will soon know. It will probably take more than the picture of two black women in the leadership of the party — especially if the picture of the Western Cape cabinet where the DA rules is perceived to remain mainly male and white. But under the leadership of Zille, the DA has for the first time put its finger on the nub of the matter– for the DA the future is black.
This could be a bold beginning. Can the DA see this strategy through to its logical conclusion? Realistically though, the DA is unlikely to win the majority of municipalities, metro councils and districts in these elections. What it is looking for is momentum, motivating signs, inspirational gestures, a few but dramatic symbols of victory in key places. In short the DA hopes to keep what it had and add a little. This will assist it achieve two things: project an image of growth to the voter and most importantly, send a message to the South African 2013 voter that it is capable of winning and therefore worth voting for.
Will the ANC’s back-to-the-future strategy deliver the votes it requires? Will it return the Cape Town metro to the ANC? Will this strategy assist the ANC retain the Nelson Mandela Bay metro? And will this strategy be enough to calm the tempers of the disgruntled ANC supporter who is threatening not to vote? Will those whose religious sensibilities were offended by the crass and crude appeals to religion come out and vote? Will the protesters of Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the Free State as well as those who sympathise with them across the land vote? And if they do will they switch sides? We do not have long to wait for the answers to these questions. But clearly, in appealing for a loyalty, historical and identity vote, the ANC has thrown one of its last dices into this election.
Seventeen years is not long enough for some South Africans — especially of the older generation — to have forgotten the mess out of which the likes of the ANC, PAC and Azapo pulled them out. It is not merely about loyalty or identity, it is about a clear and dangerous history whose legacy and presence is, for many people, still here. One of the strangest things about this election campaign was the extent to which the ANC seemed to struggle to speak coherently and meaningfully about what it has achieved since democracy.
The ANC is expected to win most municipalities and districts, which is what forecasters are predicting. It is not the districts, metros and municipalities the ANC will win that matter. The ones they lose will matter more. If they lose too much ground compared to the last election; that should make them stop and consider the message the voters are sending. Were the ANC to lose Nelson Mandela Bay, in which the city of Port Elizabeth is found, the symbolism of the loss would be huge. An area renowned for its ANC support in the past, a council named after one of the most famous and respected ANC leaders, Mandela. The DA can only gain from such a situation. With Cope having already declared a willingness to go into a coalition with the DA in that council, the ANC needs either a clear majority or a coalition arrangement of its own.
What the South African voter is asking for is not that complicated. They seem to be looking for exemplary leaders — not exemplary leaders from the past but from the present. Is that too much to ask? They are not asking for intellectual property rights, they are asking for the most basic of rights, the right to life. They are not asking for highways in their towns, just decent roads to facilitate mobility as they go searching for jobs. They are not asking for sky-scrapers in their villages, all they want is the most basic of dwellings and the most basic of amenities. They are not asking for triple-digit salaries, just decent jobs. They are not asking to be wined and dined in expensive hotels, all they need is water in their village. They are not asking for busses or bus stops every kilometre or even covered bus stops, all they want is covered toilets with water in them! How much more modest and basic can the voters get?