The Zulu expression: “igatsha ligotshwa lisemanzi” (it’s better to shape a tree branch while it is still young and relatively soft), was not coined for nothing. Like much of South Africa, the Western Cape would have been easier to win over during or soon after the 1994 political euphoria – pretty much in the same way that it was easier to convince “nationalists” from Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and others at the time to give up their Bantustan nationalist ideals for a better shared South African one. But now too much political waters have gone under the bridge and attitudes and perceptions have hardened over time. While this province has proven to be a harder electoral nut to crack – possibly because of its unique historical divides – the African National Congress should also have taken its time to prove itself to the electorate here; winning hearts and minds and nurturing a positively strong political brand position for itself. Clearly, this has not happened.

Numerous opportunities have become available for the national ruling party to correct misperceptions and prove itself worthy of the support of the Western Cape electorate, but even these were squandered through irresponsible remarks and conduct by some party representatives; here and elsewhere in the country.

It seems to be a generally shared opinion by many people in Western Cape that this province is in some way one entity and the rest of South Africa is another entity; almost in the same way that many South Africans talk about South Africa and the rest of Africa or, worse still, South Africa and Africa. When they glance over the imagined border into South Africa many people in this province see, read about and hear things that they would rather continue keeping at bay, across their perception borders, through the power of the ballot box. They see endless reports of corruption and blatant abuse of public resources by politicians and government officials who all seem to walk about with the assurance that they will always get away with what they do – and many times they do get away with it; especially when they are positioned higher in the apex of the power and privilege triangle. They also see the manner in which apparently ruling party connected people jump the queues and benefit from very generous financial support from the Lotto funds than more deserving organizations and causes do; they see and hear Julius Malema making some of the darnest remarks about people – especially Western Cape Premier Helen Zille whom many of them admire; they read about the most ridiculous abuse of state resources being justified through the notorious “Ministerial Handbook”; they see what they perceive to be the bad side of BEE and BBEEE implementation practices; they see the much talked-about accident causing pot-holes in the roads, as well as the degradation that is reported to have happened to some of the country’s good roads due to neglect by corrupt and incompetent government officials. Here, closer to home, the media coverage of the internecine political battles for positions and privilege over the past few years have also not helped the ruling party regain confidence. There will remain doubt in the eyes of many voters for as long as there is no clarity as to whether previous leadership – under Mcebisi Skhwatsha – is fully behind the recently elected team, led by Marius Fransman, or not. The many negatives have accumulated to the point of overshadowing the many positive achievements by the ANC in governing the country since 1994. In the Western Cape, the seemingly late decision by the ANC to “somaar” allocate financial and leadership resources to wrenching Western Cape local governments from the DA, and backing Tony Ehrenreich’s bid for the Cape Town Metro mayor’s chain, was also just that; too late!

The success of any brand in communicating effectively with its target audience relies heavily on the kind of associations that the targeted audience makes in regard to the brand. The seriousness with which the brand is taken depends entirely on how it is perceived and whether its own positioning is consistent with the messages that it seeks to communicate or not. Clearly, there are too many negative associations linked to Brand ANC in the Western Cape. These associations are not linked solely to what the ruling party does in the Western Cape and how it does what it does; they are also linked to what the party is being reported – correctly or incorrectly – to be doing at the levels of national government, where it still holds sway, and other provincial and local government levels throughout the country. The conduct of individuals who are seen to represent the ruling party will always impact on Brand ANC; the watchers of all this will not forget when elections come. The psychological result in the Western Cape electorate is one of deep seated fear for of what would happen were the ANC to win control of this province again. Justified or not, the ANC must look in the mirror, unpack the causes of this fear and deal honestly with each one of them.

Though understandable to a point, the pre-electoral obsession with the “C- Vote” (Coloured Vote) is also often too clumsily handled by the ruling party spokespeople. Remarks about the need to go for the C-Vote, often more vociferous just before elections and, seemingly, divorced from concrete steps to engage more meaningfully with communities who represent this vote are, at best, shallow in their opportunism. The whole thing has been made to seem like engagement with the so-called minority votes – the C-Vote, the I-Vote (Indian) and, some claim, the increasingly marginalized W-Vote (white) – comes only as an after-thought for winning these strategic electoral communities. No one party in the Western Cape, even the DA, can lie on its laurels and relax after the crucial votes have been bagged. In the same way, the ANC cannot realistically carry the same campaign message in the Western Cape that the party would use successfully in places like the Limpopo and Kwazulu-Natal. Notwithstanding the underlying and shared concerns about joblessness, poverty, crime, service delivery and others, the socio-political landscape is different in different parts of South Africa and should be treated as such. Political parties have something to sell and they need to learn how to best package their offerings to suite each targeted audience without necessarily deceiving any of them. The one glove fits all approach has not worked in the past and it has little chance of working in the future. The bulk of the Western Cape electorate is famously capable of non-partisanship when elections come. Its voting patterns are very responsive to real issues and political brand perceptions in the period leading to and during elections. NB: Every moment between elections is considered part of a period “leading to (the next) elections”! This is where the national ruling party seems to often get it wrong.

The solution to the ANC’s challenges in the Western Cape does not lie in last minute rallying around seemingly hastily chosen Coloured electoral representatives simply because they will speak the language in Bishop Lavis and Retreat; it lies in ensuring that Brand ANC remains squeaky clean throughout South Africa and that individuals who abuse their positions for personal gain or who are hopelessly incompetent to do their work are removed from those positions and replaced with better people. To plant a lasting positive image in the minds of the electorate, whether in the Western Cape or elsewhere, the ANC will have to act decisively in rooting out corruption wherever it is found; initiate serious voter-sensitive amendments to the notorious “Ministerial Handbook” and consistently manage jealously its brand reputation. Failure to do this will ensure that the recent 62% (previously 65% and higher) continues to dwindle at each successive election.

The 2011 Local Government election results mark the first time since 1994 that any one party won the kind of majority taken by the DA in the Western Cape. If things continue this way, this country will end up with two political giants facing each other at each major election, probably an eventuality that might be better for democracy, as no politicians from any side of the divide will continue thinking that votes are unconditionally due to them!