What Ramaphosa can learn from Trump

POLITICS

When Americans go to the polls these days, no matter what election they are voting in, be it for the Senate, Congress, governor or local government, they end up voting for or against President Donald Trump rather than for Republicans or Democrats.

For better or worse (often worse) he has dominated the political landscape. This dynamic means the Republican Party itself plays a very small role in how votes are cast.

Trump has done this by imposing his personality on the political landscape. He is everywhere. His opinions are everywhere. His tweets are everywhere. His hair is everywhere.

He has made himself the story.

Although there is, perhaps, very little that President Cyril Ramaphosa can learn from Trump, when it comes to personality politics there are clues to how electoral success can be achieved in the 2019 elections. As a decent and modest man, Ramaphosa’s instincts will probably be to avoid the “presidential” style of campaigning that the United States invented and Trump has supersized.


But a delicately pursued strategy of using Ramaphosa to be the face of the ANC electoral campaign is probably the only way to achieve the electoral win he needs.

The ANC brand has been pummelled by ongoing scandals of astonishing breadth and murkiness. The state capture gang has dragged this proud liberation organisation through mud of every conceivable colour and texture. Indeed, new kinds of mud seem to have been invented through which to drag the party.

Ramaphosa’s brand, however, seems to reflect the character of the man: modest, honest and hardworking.

Although he will never be an unstable late-night tweeter (thank God), it would be good marketing to push him and what he stands for to the front of the ANC’s campaign and to try to make the election a referendum on Ramaphosa and his leadership.

Every piece of communication needs to feature him. The narrative needs to be about him and the party needs to be secondary.

This would represent a profound change for the ANC. Until now, the needs of the party have always come first. Hardworking cadres avoided the limelight and any pursuit of personal profile was frowned upon. Party discipline was paramount and the story was always about the party rather than individuals.

This has traditionally been how leftist parties have worked. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom worked in a similar way until Tony Blair re-invented that dynamic and led the party to victory after years in the bleak wilderness of political irrelevance.

But politics has changed since the 1990s when the ubiquitous nature of the 24/7 media cycle created a media environment in which voters now feel that they “know” politicians in the same way that they “know” celebrities. In fact, politicians are celebrities. Whether they like it or not.

And Ramaphosa, one suspects, does not like it. He seems to be a man who does not crave the spotlight like a Blair or a Trump. But, given how the world of media has changed, the spotlight, unfortunately, likes him.

The ANC’s brand is in bad shape, but Ramaphosa’s brand is in great shape. So it is common sense that his brand needs to be front and centre.

By taking a (tiny) leaf out of the Trump playbook Ramaphosa can secure the convincing win that he, and the ANC, need.

That (and that) alone, is what our president can learn from the tweeter-in-chief.

John Davenport is chief creative officer at advertising and communications company Havas. These are his own views

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John Davenport
John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa.

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