/ 26 April 2013

DA’s reckless messaging could pay off in the long run

Da's Reckless Messaging Could Pay Off In The Long Run

Holed up in his Downing Street bunker as he is, desperately trying to save the Liberal Democrats from its toxic association with the Tories, it is tempting to think that long-time Democratic Alliance strategist Ryan Coetzee has lost his marbles.

How else should one react to the hard-core campaigning message that has come from the DA in the past couple of weeks, that the ANC "did not lead the struggle against apartheid"? 

For the great majority of progressive people such a message is not only factually errant nonsense, it is deeply offensive historical revisionism. Which is why progressive commentators have been so quick to dismiss the campaigning as misjudged as well as irritating. Moreover, it looks like a rotten strategy: just when the DA is making solid progress in the electoral market, perhaps making inroads into the "black vote" (as it is so often crudely referred to), it deviates from what should be the core message about jobs. The most recent rendition of the respected Afrobarometer opinion poll series in 2011 shows that 45% of people say unemployment is the ­single biggest problem facing the country (by a mile; no other issue gets more than 8%) and exactly 45% say that the government is doing a "very bad" job of addressing this issue (30% said "bad").

It's still about the economy, stupid, not who defeated apartheid. It has to be. Which explains why the primary current slogan adorning the DA's main branding is: "Working for change. Working for jobs." 

In a year's time South Africa will go to the polls for the fourth time since 1994, her fifth democratic election. The election will be fought on the terrain of the economy, but with many proxies, such as "government competence and "service delivery", "corruption" and "leadership". 

The ANC is vulnerable on all three of these proxies. And a large majority of people are desperate for work. It seems very unlikely that the government can make even the slightest inroad in the next 12 months into the task of creating jobs through public works' programmes, such as the 19 strategic infrastructure projects. 

So, what is the DA up to? He may be in London, but Coetzee still has the ear of DA leader Helen Zille, who respects his opinion greatly – and whether or not he is widely loved in the wider party, his views carry great weight. This latest move would not have happened without his approval. 

Premeditated assault
Moreover, it is not an off-the-cuff improvisation, but a premeditated assault, and the start of the next phase of the DA's 2014 election campaign. 

Although the persistent drum beat of the "working for change, working for jobs" message will continue, no doubt, the purpose of the short-term "Know your DA" campaign insert is about repositioning the brand in the eyes of the "born-frees" – a group of first-time voters that is fast gaining a mythical status in the political lexicon, but about whose views precious little is actually known.

The DA has the resources and the savvy to have polled this group separately and to have tested its most controversial recent messages with focus groups, so the apparent recklessness of the messaging is ­probably far less risky than might seem to be the case at first glance. 

But it does make assumptions about the attitudes of younger voters to the past. In marketing and branding theory, the purpose of the campaigning is not necessarily about convincing such voters of the integrity of the brand that is conveying the message, but sowing a seed of doubt about the integrity of the competitor brand – the ANC.

Clearly, the ANC has traded for a very long time on the legitimacy that comes from its leadership of the struggle against apartheid. To question that role is to attack the brand at its very core. That might be offensive, as I say, to those who were around at the time and know the truth, but for those who weren't, its impact may be to make such voters think twice when elders tell them: "You should vote for the ANC because we owe our freedom to the ANC."

Like any normal market, its newer entrants will be looking for their  own reasons for choosing product X over product Y. And the evidence that they can see tends to suggest an organisation that is fast losing touch with its noble past and betraying the principled legacy of the ANC's opposition to apartheid.

Voting loyalty
Aside from the born-frees, the evidence from the 2011 Afrobarometer suggests that the key indicator of voting loyalty – identification with a party (rather than who you will vote for tomorrow) – continues to shift with time, to the cost of the ANC. Whereas in 2008 only 4% of voters said they were "close" to the DA, by 2011 that figure had grown to 10%. The figure for the ANC, interestingly, barely moved – 43% to 44% in 2011.

But with grave concerns about voter registration and turnout in South Africa's electoral system, if the significantly increased trends in underlying party loyalty translate – as they are likely to – into high levels of registration and turnout among DA voters, it is likely to result in a significantly higher proportion of seats in Parliament for the DA in total; close to their aspiration of 30%. 

The ANC has many problems, not least in its relationship with the union federation, Cosatu, which, in previous elections, has proved to be a vital ally in terms of getting the vote out. Currently, the union movement appears turned in on itself, preoccupied with, and weakened by, internal factional disputes driven as much by its relationship with ANC factions and individual leaders as by any issue of strategy and "core business" – its falling numbers and influence on the shop floor.

Furthermore, the unions may no longer be the powerful conveyor of a political message for the ANC that they once were. 

Public trust in trade unions, especially among black and working-class South Africans, has plummeted in the past year, a survey carried out by the Human Sciences Research Council has found. 

The poll was conducted in the wake of labour turmoil last year in which workers abandoned traditional trade unions and embarked on wildcat strike action. The survey, which is based on a representative sample derived from census information and is carried out annually, found that, among the public in general, trust in trade unions dropped from 43% in 2011 to 29% in 2012.

Among black and working-class South Africans, who have formed the backbone of the labour movement, there was a significant growth in distrust: 35% of black South Africans said they distrusted trade unions, compared with 21% the year before; and 53% of coloured people said they distrusted them, compared with 37% in 2011. 

Among those who consider themselves to be part of the working class, distrust increased from 21% in 2011 to 37% in 2012.

With 12 months to go, there is a great deal to play for. I suspect that Coetzee is looking forward to the South African election next year rather more than he is the British one in 2015.