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How Helen Zille can increase her share of the black vote

Khaya Dlanga

Khaya Dlanga offers the Democratic Alliance and its leader, Helen Zille, some tips on how to increase their number of black voters.

DA leader Helen Zille. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

If one asked Helen Zille if the DA has the black vote, she would say what she has always said: the Democratic Alliance is the most racially diverse political party in the country.

But that doesn’t answer the question of the black vote, which is needed if she wants the DA to be a formidable threat to the ANC, if not rule the country. 

She would also say that they do not care about race because the party is about delivery. Unfortunately South Africa is racialised. Whether you like it or not, if you want to get votes you have to appeal to the majority, and you can’t appeal to a voter in Sandton the same way you appeal to one in Khayelithsa. You need different strategies for both.

She is correct in saying that there should be no racialisation of our politics. But South Africa was racialised for 400 years and there isn’t a chance we can end it in 18.

In the last election the DA got 6% of the black electorate, according to Zille’s own admission. The thing about Zille is that she has a great work ethic and is really good at what she does. Not a single person can deny that the Western Cape is a well-run machine.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: as I have said in the past, Zille is not racist. The biggest problem with her is that she can be very abrasive when responding to people. If she was a black woman or a man of any colour she might not be viewed as abrasive. She has a way of sounding like madam baas sometimes. She might even argue that her style has worked so far and the DA has grown beyond anyone’s dreams during her time at the helm of the party. There are a few things Zille needs to do to get another 5% from the ANC – I think 10% is a stretch.

1. She needs to showcase her human side a lot more.
It must not come across as a sales pitch or as: “Hey, look black people. I’m nice, see? Now vote for me.” She must be authentic, just like she was when she interviewed on Metro FM a few months ago, talking about how, as a journalist, she uncovered the Steve Biko story. There was nothing contrived about how she told the story. There was no madam, there was someone who was genuinely in love with her country. There was no ANC bashing. It was just a story about her.

She came across as human and people suddenly realised that she actually had a hand in the struggle too. When people heard her warm side, they suddenly said they would actually take a second look at her, even whispered the possibility of voting for her. Unfortunately the South African Broadcasting Corporation's stations wouldn't let her have that opportunity. She won't be able to do it through speeches she delivers herself. If she made speeches about how she was in the struggle she would come across as opportunistic and inauthentic. She’d have to go to interviews where she gets asked those kinds of questions.

2. She needs to re-introduce herself to the public.
If people voted on work ethic alone she would have a significant chunk of the vote. The truth is, her province is the best performing one of the whole lot. But people need to know her for them to think they can trust her, not just her work. No one introduced themselves better than US President Barack Obama in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention when Americans heard him speak for the first time.

3. She needs to talk about what she loves about this country and what we should do better, not just bash the ANC.
People know that the ANC hasn’t been optimal, and the last thing they want is someone they don’t really trust telling them that. When Obama introduced himself to the nation he spoke about his hopes, what he loved about America, not about what he detested about George Bush and the Republicans. People still like the ANC even if they don’t like the leadership. There is an emotional bond between the people and the ANC that cannot be explained.

4. She needs to get Athol Trollip out more.
He must get out there and speak to the people because he speaks flawless Xhosa, which will connect with a lot of voters. In fact, the voters she wants will connect better with him than with Lindiwe Mazibuko. They must deploy her to the young Model C-accented black folks. If she goes to speak to older black people, they will see her as an uppity black person with good English who doesn’t know their struggles, and who only know how to speak about them, not to them. Despite the fact that this isn't true, to them that’s all she is. Some of the traditionalists might even be offended by how she confronted the president in Parliament – she would be perceived as a young girl who has no respect for her elders. "She doesn’t understand the African ways," they might say. Some of us understand that she was well within her right to do so, but not some of the elderly.

5. People need to know Lindiwe Mazibuko's story.
People buy into political stories long before they buy into the politician. No one knows what Lindiwe’s story is. No one knows that her mother was a nurse. What were her struggles, if any? People want to know those things. You can’t be a political giant without a story. Why do you think Kgalema Motlanthe won’t win at Mangaung? No one knows his story. With Mbeki we knew that he fled the country, that his son vanished and no one knows what happened to him. There’s a story. Mandela, Lincoln, you name any great politician, they have a story. Before people know how brilliant you are, they want to know your story because it says something they can’t put into words about your character as an individual, rather than as a leader in a party.

Mazibuko is brilliant. She is smart and fearless. We saw her confronting the president about Nkandla a few weeks ago even though the way Parliament is designed is so that when the president speaks he is physically standing above everyone, looking down on them. But when she confronted him she seemed to get bigger and bolder, while the president got increasingly angry and demanded to be respected. When he said that, he wasn’t speaking to her, he was appealing to the masses who would probably be appalled by this young girl dressing down a grown man who is old enough to be her father.

Zille has a likeability gap precisely because she can come across as very harsh and that she knows best. Unfortunately a lot of people will tie this to a bad past even though that is not her intention. Often, Zille is her own worst enemy, saying the right thing in the wrong way, which leads people to continue to be suspicious of her true intentions. So for the next three years, she's going to have to work hard on her ground game, introducing herself to black voters and being careful not so say things that could be misunderstood. If she does, she will take another chunk from Zuma’s ANC, and perhaps increase her tally of the black vote from 6% to 12%. We shall see. 


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