This is it: Election infomercial hell

If Thabo Mbeki wants to live to see his third term, he should reconsider the tactic of pressing the flesh at traffic intersections.

Popping one’s head through the windows of SUVs is fine in New Hampshire, but in Gauteng you’re asking to be blown away by a twitchy motorist who’s been hijacked once too often.

Of course, hijackers come in all shapes and sizes, as Namibian President Sam Nujoma has proved.

Currently trying to upgrade from the “Indefinite Term of Office” contract to the “Octogenarian Despot” model designed by Robert Mugabe, Nujoma hasn’t pounded many pavements during his steady hijacking of democracy.

Why walk when you can sit on a cushion, swishing flies off the presidential crème brûlée with a replica of Kenneth Kaunda’s horsehair whisk?

No, Mbeki’s walkabout was brave and, by Namibian standards, athletic. And, thank God, nobody accidentally gave him 50c and told him that they didn’t need their windows cleaned. Interracial harmony was spared.

The appearance at their elbow of that little white goatee would have come as something as a shock to motorists, half imagining that presidents spend their days buried under paperwork, or at least playing golf.

Or, in the case of Mugabe, playing Blair Witch Project, a game in which a Ken doll, dressed in Union Jack underpants and bedaubed with lipstick, is tied to a small stake and burnt with a cigarette lighter representing the fires of hell and liberation.

Simply put, we don’t expect politicians to appear in our daily lives, because we know that politicians don’t really exist. They appear in the media, certainly, but then so do Teletubbies and Felicia, both figments of a disturbed imagination.

In the real world of stale corn-flakes and stubbed toes, they are entirely absent. Even rumours about their purported role in governing the country seem exaggerated.

But this buffer of unreality is what makes electioneering possible, since it numbs us to the astounding sleaziness of the process. Blithely we commit our future into the hands of strangers whom, if they were real people living next door, we would probably not consider fit to peddle used cars.

Those who say that advertising doesn’t work need only look to voter turnouts on April 14 for conclusive proof of the suggestibility of our species. Naturally, there are far worse things to sell than democracy, but nonetheless one’s intellectual pride is deflated that we should have been wooed and won by such enormously crude solicitations.

It all has the cardboard joviality of an infomercial, from the actual campaigns of individual parties, to the media talking about how the media has been talking about the media’s coverage of the election: obvious, repetitious and largely irrelevant.

This frenzy of talk, fuelled by the need to fill column inches, is perhaps a frustrated reaction to the essence of an election, the outcome of which is public but the mechanics of which are entirely private.

The juicy human angle is denied to the all-demanding, undiscerning eye of the media by the privacy of the voting booth, and somehow all those statistics don’t grab readers by the throat. In this climate, volume of copy is paramount.

Perhaps one merely gets what one expects, and the volume and flimsiness of infomercials on television should have prepared us for the election.

In fact, it is surprising that the major parties have not herded captive audiences into studios and given them the hard sell.

“Do you have an unsightly Aids epidemic?” Mbeki could ask in his 15-minute slot. “I did, until one day a friend said, ‘Thabo, why don’t you just ignore it?’ It worked for me and it can work for you. All you need is a burning ambition to be remembered as a senior statesman, a health minister with a backbone made out of damp cotton wool and an electorate with the combined memory of a goldfish.

“Remember, it’s a syndrome, not a virus. Or something. Anyway, we’re rolling out the anti-retrorocket- thingies now, so who cares? May ubuntu be upon you. Fax me the final figures, I’ll be in Geneva.”

Marthinus van Schalkwyk, chewing the fat with a spokesmodel over coffee on a hastily constructed stoep, would excel as the bon vivant.

“You know, Bambi, people ask me, ‘Marthinus, why is you in bed wiff the ANC?’ I tell them, I am not in bed wiff the ANC, I sleep on the floor at the foot of the bed. But the ANC kindly bought me a wicker basket, so I’m not uncomfortable.”

Boeretroos would be out of the question on the set of the DA’s boutique.

“This country needs a credible government that will be taken seriously by the rest of the world,” says Tony Leon. “That’s why I’m wearing this particular suit, because Douglas Gibson says it makes me look like a cross between Gregory Peck and Napoleon. Although if I turn my head just so, I think I look more like Brando.

“Some people have criticised the Deeyay for its lack of experience in government. Yes, this is true, but I want to remind them that Douglas was a prefect at school.

“Also, you know how it sometimes goes that you don’t know what you like, but you know what you don’t like? I think that’s a feasible foreign policy right there.”

And, of course, there’s always the product that is unsellable, the ad that couldn’t possibly exist and yet does. The newly hatched National Action, sporting posters with the catchy motto of “Vang hulle en hang hulle”, would have to fill the after-midnight slot. There are some things children shouldn’t see.

“Call now, and you’ll get this replica Casspir, with fully installed black-lure.” Applause.

“It’s easy. You squeeze it like this, and it says things that blacks say in their natural habitat, like ‘Hau’ and ‘Sharp’ and ‘Nigga’.

“Being sociable animals, they will naturally congregate and you can vang the ones you want to hang.”

Does advertising work? Mostly.

Do infomercials work? One hopes not. Despite millions of rands spent and thousands of hands shaken, the election seems set to unfold like a trip to the supermarket.

So much choice, but we go straight to the shelf we know.

I don’t know much about politics, but I know what I like.

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