Parties in a last-minute Twitter

It was shortly after midnight on Wednesday and Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille pulled up a chair at the Independent Electoral Commission results centre in Pretoria. She was exhausted, but satisfied with her party’s campaign, which came complete with a kitchen cabinet of bleary-eyed young tech-savvy types who backed it all up.

“I really covered the whole country,” she said. “Today I did seven rallies in one day in three provinces.
Do you know how many that is?”

Of course, behind every satisfied political leader stands a group of people who had to risk premature heart attacks to get everything done. And for the DA, most of this work was done in the party headquarters in Gardens, Cape Town, where chief executive Jonathan Moakes ran the show.

While Zille was dispatched to places like Port Elizabeth, Mpumalanga and Midvaal during the party’s two-month election campaign, Moakes had to keep it together, balancing the party’s ideal outcomes, voting trends and financial capabilities and make it work. He was also the person who had to deal with random phone calls from Zille relating to a Twitter account, which has become the DA’s premier social media tool, with Zille and others engaging directly with voters.

“The party runs a tight ship, we have to make every cent count,” he told the Mail & Guardian from his office.

Money appeared to be the least of the Gauteng ANC’s problems during this campaign. The party swopped its grubby headquarters at Walter Sisulu House in Johannesburg’s Commissioner Street for the funky Media Lounge, housed in an upmarket office block in Bryanston. Staff members said that Gauteng ANC leaders had decided they needed a better venue for briefings, meetings and get togethers with fellow campaigners.

A cherry-red Ferrari was parked in front of the Media Lounge on Tuesday, its owner one of the ANC benefactors who was hobnobbing inside with political leaders. “He comes with a new car every day,” one of the staff members whispered enviously.

Inside the lounge were bright young things in designer clothes tapping away on their black laptops. Everyone was sitting on yellow, green and black ottomans that doubled as coffee tables for the steady stream of hot drinks provided by the resident tea lady. The granite-topped bar in the corner sported two kinds of fruit juices. There was no alcohol in sight.

The lounge is kitted out with its own studio and the hip youngsters made short soundbites about the ANC that they sent out to community radio stations. The rest used their laptops to update the Twitter and Facebook accounts set up shortly before the election.

On Facebook they made more than 7 000 friends and profiled celebrities like Hlomla Dandala, who recently rejoined the ANC from Cope.

But by Wednesday the lounge was empty. The troops had moved on to one of the election results centres, either in Pretoria or at the SABC offices in Johannesburg, to study the numbers and see whether their hard work had paid off.

  • Early in the week in Cape Town, the DA was not letting a single opportunity slip in a bid to get voters on its side. At the DA call centre in Roeland Street the telephones were buzzing, with hundreds of staff and volunteers working them.

    To help them stay on form, the DA powers-that-be helpfully put up instructions on posters around the call centre that included the message: “Always showcase the DA’s diversity”. As if on cue, one of the operators proved herself. She had asked to speak to a potential voter three times, but clearly the person on the other end of the line wasn’t getting it. Suddenly, she realised what the problem was.

    Ag jammer, mevrou, ek het nie geweet mevrou is Afrikaans nie, en ek praat heeltyd Engels [Sorry madam, I didn’t realise you were Afrikaans and here I am speaking English],” and the volunteer switched to the Western Cape’s most widely-spoken language.

    Meanwhile, back in Pretoria in the early morning hours of Thursday, the adrenalin was making it hard for Zille to call it a day and get some sleep.

    “I drive these people mad,” she said sympathetically, pointing at her team, whose members were still diligently checking results, perhaps only because their leader was watching. An aide came over to announce some good news: a crucial Cape Town ward had been won by a DA councillor, with a whopping 97,3% majority.

    “What’s his number, I want to call him and ask what happened to the other 2,7%,” Zille said. Just hours before dawn on Thursday ANC party officials reported for duty at their allocated desks at the results centre in Pretoria.

    ANC spokesperson and national executive member Jackson Mthembu was worried. He’d just heard that initial voter turnout in Mpumalanga, his home province, was less than 10%. He couldn’t explain what was happening there, and for once the talkative spokesperson was speechless.

    His colleague, Keith Khoza, came in with more bad news: the DA had retained the highly contested Midvaal, the area the ANC was sure it would take. But once the morning fog had lifted and the sun started streaming into the centre ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe strode in with a confident smile, having swapped his ANC tracksuit for a mandarin collar shirt. “I’m not stressed. How can I be stressed? There is no word for stress in Xhosa or Zulu or any black language,” he said. And he had reason to smile.

    For the most part, ANC support remained firmly intact. The party was disappointed that it couldn’t wrest Midvaal and the Baviaans municipality from the DA and had to part with Knysna, but it won Oudtshoorn and Beaufort West to make up for it. In the rest of the country support for the ruling party looked steady. For now.

    A staff member paused to describe how the ANC had pulled out all the stops to get the vote. “I was campaigning in a tiny dorp between Springbok and Pofadder. When I told someone at Luthuli House about it, he replied: ‘That’s the thing, the ANC will go to Mars to get votes.’”

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