As empty as election promises

To look at the lampposts in the Western Cape as elections loom ever closer, you might think even the spin doctors are forging their degrees these days.

What shines out more than anything from posters marking the hustings is a single lack of clarity and commitment in the messages the parties are trying to put across. In most cases it is hard to believe they even want to win.

Take the ANC as a case in point. To date the ANC (the biggest and most powerful party in the country and the only one with more or less limitless resources at its disposal) is doing battle in what is probably the most contested province in the country with nothing more focused than the party’s election slogan: Working together we can do more.

It presents itself as undifferentiated text, neither bulking in consciousness in the way it sits in the space, nor creating any kind of play between the black text and the background yellow. “Vote ANC” and “A better life for all” unassertive in the top right-hand corner; the party logo equally self-deprecating at bottom right — All one can say about this is the ANC is lucky it is going to win (nationally) anyway and did it learn nothing from Barack Obama?

More of WHAT? The slogan ends without extension, its rhetorical surge reaches no requitement. In a mere six words it manages to meander. It reads, to coin a phrase, as empty as election promises and has about it the deadly whiff of an exhausted committee finally settling on the only option that none of its members actively hates, if only because it is so bland in the first place.

For impact at least, the ANC would have done better to reproduce the hardsell poster it is running in Gauteng and elsewhere, with Jacob Zuma favouring the world with a veiled glance and secret smile under the non-nonsense text: My ANC. My Vision. My Country. That’s telling it like it is.

To be sure, the name Zuma is not one with which to conjure in the Western Cape and, no doubt, market research shows this. Even so, one would have thought that by now the ANC would have realised that the coloured vote is a chimera and, in pandering to it, the party is at sixes and sevens with a not insubstantial township support base strongly targeted by both Cope and the DA.

To make matters worse, the ANC still has no — even unconvincing — alternative face in the province. The process of choosing a premier candidate appears deadlocked and it remains unclear which of the three metaphorical dogs — provincial party leader Mcebisi Skwatsha, incumbent premier Lynne Brown, or cleric-turned-businessman Chris Nissen, will finally emerge with the premiership bone.

Cope has no such problems in the Western Cape. In Allan Boesak the party has a demagogue of stature and sophistication, the one figure capable (in the best of all possible worlds) of carrying the province on a flamboyant cult of personality and oratory. Boesak, though, comes with his own problems, not least of them being a criminal conviction for fraud on the platform of a political party the central rhetorical points of which are respect for the law and clean administration.

But even this dilemma cannot justify the failure of imagination to be read in the posters that Cope has been raising — also on a yellow background, uncomfortably undifferentiated from the ANC format, uncomfortably lacking in a separate identity.

A new agenda for change and hope. This is more like the abstract of a mini-essay than the rallying cry of a political movement. More than this, it is frankly dysfunctional: this is the only word you can use when hope — which used to spring eternal — becomes the stuff of a committee protocol.

The other party with a convincing candidate in the Western Cape, of course, is the DA — which, all things being equal, could well win the province come election day.

Perceiving this, the spin doctors of the DA appear to have responded, in their wisdom, through two stratagems of truly devastating ineptitude. One is to use some graduate of the Michael Jackson Makeover School, with only a passing resemblance, to stand in for premier candidate and national party leader Helen Zille in the poster-shoot. The other is, systematically, to dilute the impact of Zille’s candidacy, by alternating her with local nonentities as the face of the DA. This in the one province where Zille’s (and nobody else’s) remarkable performance as mayor of Cape Town could, if played right, be turned into a victory in the entire province.

No such modesty afflicts the ID, of course. The ID’s campaign posters are so pre-occupied with the presentation of party leader Patricia de Lille’s image that there is a sense almost of afterthought to the party’s (anyway somewhat naff) “Be part of the solution. Vote ID” campaign slogan. But who is this woman with the straight, straight hair and the plump dimpled little smile, all ensconced in a register of colour that comes across almost pastel in its domestic cosiness? Why, it’s Auntie Patricia of course, and here lies the problem. There is no doubt that the ID campaign will appeal to matrons of a certain age in Mitchells Plain and the platteland, but basically you are more likely — on the basis of the presentation, astute politician though she is in real life — to go to Auntie Patricia for minor domestic or personal services than you are to get her on your side against the juggernaut of the ANC.

Only one party has got it right — the Freedom Front Plus. In the party poster, Western Cape party leader Corné Mulder leans out from the frame into the viewer’s space, engaging the attention of the viewer, both through that gesture and with startlingly blue eyes, crinkled with good humour. He is dressed casually, in sports coat and open-necked shirt. The image is small-town doctor or lawyer, a man you can trust, and this carried through in the party’s modest, but steely and, above all, believable slogan: Ons staan op vir jou regte. If you are one of those that Mulder is wanting to appeal to, you will also respond to the party colours, comfortingly reminiscent as they are of the glory days of the Boer Republics. And you will draw at least some comfort and sense of solidarity therefrom.

Wasted though it might be on the likely voter, this is good politics — sane, accurately directed and working within its own limitations. Compare, by way of illustration, the way another politician with a severely circumscribed constituency, Bantu Holomisa, has approached the issue. Under a picture of Holomisa looking like the political bulldog he is, the poster tells us: Now is the time for all South Africans. The right answer is: yes, but so what?

Another political impulse working within its own limitation, though perhaps less intentionally, was marked a single lamppost decoration positioned from around November last year, urging the great South African public to endorse the candidacy of one Lucas Mangope. The lone herald, appropriately enough, was positioned for some months outside the National Archive in Roeland Street. Then, as mysteriously as it had arrived, it disappeared again. A poignant reminder perhaps of what happens in the long run if you don’t address your supporters aright.

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