Analysis

This election, ANC appears tactically lost

Richard Calland

The ruling party is deluded if it thinks the public doesn't care about Thuli Madonsela's report.

EFF leader Julius Malema. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Nkandla is now a pivotal election campaign issue. On the one side of the contest, the ANC appears to be in denial. The ruling party's self-delusion, in which it tries to convince itself as much as the electorate that the public protector's report on President Jacob Zuma's homestead is about mistakes made by certain government officials and private contractors, and thus is not about Zuma's integrity or fitness for office, is as revealing as it is absurd.

In this parallel universe, the ANC appears to believe that the majority of voters – its core, working-class support – does not give a flying fig about what public protector Thuli Madonsela described in her report as "opulence on a grand scale".

Is this not the sign of a political party that is not only losing touch with reality, but also with its people?

Time, of course, will tell, and the ANC has thus far proved to have a resilient electoral brand. Alas, public opinion polling in South Africa is too sparse and too infrequent to provide any useful evidence as to whether, and to what extent, Nkandla will have an impact on people's decision to vote.

But the rebuttable presumption must be that it matters a great deal, and that the ANC's claim that the Nkandla scandal is a media and middle-class "preoccupation" is a massive misreading of potentially monumental proportions.

Thus, the opposition's job is to keep Nkandla firmly at the centre of the election campaign and as far as possible to turn Election 2014 into a referendum on Zuma's fitness for public office.

In this they must be careful, however, because there is polling evidence to suggest that voters will distinguish between the ANC and its leader and, whatever their feelings about the latter, may still give the former the benefit of the doubt when they enter the polling booth.

Parallel campaign
Thus, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – the only two other political parties of any substantial relevance to the outcome of Election 2014 – have to get their strategy right by running a parallel campaign, one track aimed firmly at Zuma and Nkandla, the other on the issue that matters most to the most people: unemployment.

The DA's campaign messaging on jobs and economic growth is reasonably clearly articulated (however implausible it may be). But what surprises me is that it is essentially a positive message: it's about trying to convince the electorate that the DA has a fresh and credible answer to the challenge of creating jobs.

Whereas this has the advantage of repositioning the DA almost miraculously as the party of change – in contrast to an ANC, which increasingly looks like a conservative party that wants to keep things as they are and that has run out of ideas on the big issues facing government – I would have expected a much stronger negative campaign on unemployment, such as the one the Conservative Party ran so powerfully in 1979 in Britain under the guidance of advertising-executive-turned-election-strategist Charles Saatchi. Then, after five years of Labour rule, the Tories ran massive billboards with a picture of a long, snaking queue of unemployed people under the heading "Labour isn't working".

It put the spotlight on the governing Labour Party's record in government in relation to the biggest issue of the time – and was the decisive factor in sweeping Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party to power.

The DA's own Saatchi, Stan Greenberg, has a CV that includes work for, among others, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Yitzhak Rabin and Tony Blair, so he knows what he's doing. He also worked for Nelson Mandela and the ANC in 1994, and was the principal architect of its very positive campaign in South Africa's founding democratic election.

Greenberg likes to work for left-of-centre social democrats. That he is sufficiently disillusioned and cross with the ANC's use of power to take his expertise across to a party that is only just beginning to include social democratic thinking in its ideological make-up is interesting enough.

Reassure
Greenberg's advice back in 1994 was that, when it is obvious that you are going to win an election, what you need to do is run a largely positive campaign in which you seek to reassure as many people as possible that you are fit and ready to govern.

The slogan "A better life for all" was the result. And it worked nationally, though not in the Western Cape, where a viciously negative National Party campaign blew the ANC out of the water – a prime example of one of the golden rules of election campaigning, which is that it is very hard to fight a strong negative campaign with positive campaigning. Instead, you need to fight fire with fire and "out-negative" your competition.

Things have changed since 1994. Although the ANC will still win a majority in May, the size of its victory is no longer a foregone conclusion.

With the DA and the EFF on the attack, the ANC needs to develop a clear and cogent negative campaign strategy of its own. But it seems unable to appreciate the need to do so – further evidence that its head is in the sand and that it is losing its way.

Were the DA really to turn the fire on to the ANC on both unemployment and Nkandla, it is unlikely that the ruling party's nostalgic, backward-looking, rose-tinted-spectacled messages of "We've got a good story to tell" and "South Africa is a better place to live in" would constitute an adequate response.

The negative campaign message would, as I say, trump the positive. Even if there is time to switch strategy, I don't think the ANC knows how to "do" negative. Maybe piecemeal, on the stump and at the doorstep, it does – but not in a co-ordinated, strategic way.

Hopeless floundering
And at times it appears tactically lost. On a TV talk show soon after the release of the Nkandla report, ANC deputy minister of justice John Jeffery floundered hopelessly in the face of a sustained and focused assault from the DA's Lindiwe Masibuko and the EFF's Dali Mpofu. Breaking another golden rule of electoral politics, which is never to publicise your competitor's campaign messages, "JJ" even read out the DA's SMS message that "Zuma stole R246m to build his home".

One person who does negative very well, and with a natural, instinctive panache, is young Julius Malema. How the ANC could do with him now, to turn the spotlight back on to Helen Zille and her party's prevarication, equivocation and mixed messaging on employment equity and black economic empowerment, which remains the DA's Achilles heel and one that is undermining unity within the party.

Whether the ANC has the wit, strategic flexibility and wherewithal to exploit this potential weakness is very much in doubt. Pointing backwards to its achievements in liberating the country from apartheid and then building a welfare state may not be a sufficiently robust and persuasive response to a concerted negative campaign on jobs and a certain presidential property.

The faultlines of Election 2014 are emerging nicely, as are the key campaign issues. Whether the voters in places such as Bekkersdal care at all or have instead lost faith in parliamentary politics, and are therefore busy withdrawing their democratic consent after just 20 years of democracy is an altogether different and more troubling matter.

Richard Calland's latest book, The Zuma Years: South Africa's Changing Face of Power, is published by Zebra.

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