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Editorial: DA’s divisive posters were a calculated decision — which has backfired

It’s a thin line — a hairline fracture, if you will — that space between being righteous and self-righteous. And the Democratic Alliance charged over it this week like a starlet sprinting towards a reality TV slot. 

The opposition party’s local government election posters for its KwaZuluZ-Natal campaign — The ANC called you racists; The DA calls you heroes — started being erected in Phoenix on Monday. 

We are told the traditionally Indian township was chosen because the party was rolling out its messaging from north to south, and in the coming days, the posters would pepper the remainder of the eThekwini area.  

It is in Phoenix where 36, mostly black, people were killed, allegedly at the hands of a small group of vigilante Indian residents, during the devastating July riots that lasted eight days and crippled KwaZulu-Natal’s economy. To be clear, there were also a small number of Indian residents killed, allegedly at the hands of black looters. But death is death, and it hurts just the same, irrespective of pigmentation.  

Phoenix is a potential racial tinderbox, then, and an area that has experienced outbreaks of deadly racial violence in the past. 

By Wednesday, unrepentant DA leader John Steenhuisen and equally unrepentant provincial campaign leader Dean Macpherson were still defending the poster decision, confidently swatting away talks of the message being insensitive and divisive, adamant that the only ones offended by the “facts” were the hysterical media and citizens who were not on the ground to experience the unrest.

Of course, blaming the media and detractors for the reaction to a bad political decision places the DA in that sphere it will tell you it abhors — a sliding scale of morality that is best associated with the governing party and a lesser one known to squeeze into onesies each morning.  

We need to be clear about this. The DA’s messaging was not the result of a synapse or two misfiring in the fledgling political brain of a junior member. It was a calculated decision taken by at least one senior member — and ostensibly had the endorsement of a prominent national figure, who may be a good friend — and the presumed reaction would have been chewed over. 

It remains a constant in South African politics — this rhetoric of welcoming all races, of embracing the ideals of nonracialism. It is, of course, a necessity, given the country’s brutal apartheid past. But for once, just once, it would be refreshing if we encountered political parties that actually walked the talk, instead of using race as a battering ram to galvanise votes — and then deny doing exactly that.  

The DA is clearly exploiting the schism between the ANC and the Indian population in the province and eThekwini, a gap that widened after the civil unrest. 

What we are now seeing is a political gutter fight; one that a more emotionally mature leader would have known to avoid. 

But we also need to look honestly at the electoral facts surrounding this nasty turn of events. The DA is not trying to win eThekwini metro outright, nor is it gunning for the proverbial hearts and minds of the majority black population. It knows that in KZN — an ANC, and to a lesser extent IFP, heartland — that would be futile. 

Instead, it is seeking to win a large enough voter share, probably targeting more than 30% (the party achieved 27% in 2016) in the event that a coalition government is on the cards. 

There are also some marginal wards in areas with sizeable Indian voters. Such wards make up 18% of the city’s population. Clearly, the DA leaders in question were hoping that the “us and them” campaigning strategy would motivate these voters come 1 November. 

In retrospect, the DA will no doubt realise — one can only hope — that the divisive messaging was unnecessary, because the ANC has probably done a good enough job all by itself to alienate minority voters. What the posters are more likely to do is to alienate the “on the fence” black voters, a demographic that former DA leaders in the province sweated blood to lure. 

Less than an hour after this editorial had been penned, Macpherson issued a statement saying that the posters were in the process of being removed. 

“The DA is a party of nonracialism and it was never my intention to cause any other perception,” was one of the things he said. 

Many would believe otherwise. 

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