South African media coverage has been dominated by intensive events in the political arena for at least the past two years now. In early 2008 all media cameras were focused on the changing leadership of the Democratic Alliance (DA), keenly interested to see who would take over from the unapologetically feisty Tony Leon to take the party to another level or stage of its growth in South African politics. The central question in debates related to this leadership change in the DA was focused on whether and how the new party leader would grow the DA Brand through better in-roads into Black (African) support; the extent to which the new leader would manage to “transform” the party, remove the stigma of it being perceived as one that only represents white minority interests, and have a more cordial relationship with the then President of the Republic of South Africa.

Even more crucially, questions were asked about the extent to which the new leader would embody the new South Africa and be representative of the DA’s growing support base without alienating its traditional white minority constituency. Also, by extension, the underlying question was to know the extent to which the new leader would create a Democratic Alliance in which a more diverse South African support base would see itself reflected.

Other commentators were eager to know if the main opposition party would finally elect an African as its leader, as some seemed to believe that this was the sole guarantee to winning the DA much wider “legitimacy” across the board. Was it going to be a Barack Obama type or a Hilary Clinton type? While there is no doubt that the DA required a latter type of leader to help it hold onto its traditional voter base – as it was more in tune with its perceived Brand Identity – it could also be argued that a Barack Obama type had a better chance of winning it newer constituencies at a faster rate. But then, while there might have been available and potential Barack Obama types in skin tone alone, none of them – even less so its Chairman – seemed to possess the drawing power of the American Democratic Presidential candidate. In the end, the DA members chose to stick to the “devil that they were familiar with”.

Following the leadership change that culminated in the appointment of its first female leader in the person of the equally combative Helen Zille – subsequently dubbed “Godzille” – cameras shifted their focus on the leadership race in the African National Congress (ANC), described by many as divisive.  After many months of speculation, this process also culminated in the election, at the party’s 52nd congress in Polokwane, of an almost totally new leadership team – often referred to in some quarters as the “coalition of the disgruntled”. It was clear that this election was also a total rejection of the party’s previous leadership, especially its president, for all sorts of reasons that have been – and continue to be – sufficiently covered in the mainstream media.

The question that we ask here is to know the extent to which current media and public perceptions are representative of the traditional ANC Brand as the country’s foremost liberation organisation. Have voter/general public perceptions changed? What does the ANC Brand represent to generations of South Africans who will vote for the first time in 2009? Do they have the same romantic view of it as did generations who grew up during the 1980s and in earlier decades? Will they make strong associations between the party’s uncontested icons – such as Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela – the ANC Brand as older voter generations knew it, and the current crop of leaders, or have these romantic associations been dissipated and lost because of current developments in the ruling party? If this is the case, what should political parties like the ANC be doing to protect their brands? Should their communications people be thinking of the party and its leadership as brands that must be well managed and protected at all times, or do the views of Brand Consumers, voters in this case, not matter to them? What about other political parties? How appealing are their brands? What should they be doing to strengthen their brand positioning and take advantage of the recent “tides in the affairs of (political) men and women”?

Judging from some of the careless things that have been said in the name of the ANC in public, one could be forgiven for thinking that some new-generation ANC leaders believe that the ruling party is guaranteed the vote of the masses (read “African”) forever; that not much needs to be done in order to secure this vote and – in the case of provinces like the Western Cape – crucial votes from minority population groups. I have even heard some people saying that the ANC has accepted that it will most probably lose the Western Cape in 2009 and that this will be a small price to pay. What does this attitude do to people who still want to support the ANC in this province?

As we move further away from the land-mark 1994, South African voters will increasingly allow general public perceptions – often fed by the media and the public behaviour and utterances of political leaders – to influence the direction of their votes. Voter choice will increasingly be affected by associations that people have in their minds when they think of different political parties and the people who lead them. This should be a strong reason for the ANC to continue fighting against the Zapiro shower on the head of its president, as the more frequently this stigma is repeated, the harder it might end up becoming for voters to imagine him without it.

It can also be argued that South African value systems and expectations, especially in urban areas, will continue to evolve into new, less racially-polarised moulds that will also play a role in voter choices. This is particularly the case with younger generations of South Africans who socialise increasingly across historical racial and socio-economic divides. The ANC cannot forever rely on ostensibly unquestioning “African voter allegiance” for its survival.

The fact that South African opposition parties are too small and have their own – often historical – brand baggage that continues to hold them back, has worked in the ANC favour up to now. For example, it suffices to listen to a DA spokesperson speaking against geographic name changes to see why it is hard for traditional ANC voters to give their votes to anyone else, especially the DA, despite whatever level of confusion they might be experiencing with the current direction of the ruling party. I have heard opposition spokespeople opposing name change processes by giving reasons like “nobody knows who that person is” – like they did when Johannesburg International was about to be renamed O.R. Tambo International – or arguing that the person about to be honoured was never an important player in our history; conveniently forgetting that the names of most anti-apartheid struggle heroes and heroines were banned from being published during apartheid years – hence the unfamiliarity of many of them. This kind of contempt and utter insensitivity will always play into the hands of the ruling party.

What are the first things that come to mind when one thinks of George Bush, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Sarkozy, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Omar El Bachir, Robert Mugabe, and others? Does it matter to the same degree in France, for instance, as it does in South Africa, that the leadership of a political party is not racially and culturally representative? Why is this kind of representation more important here in South Africa than it seems in, say Germany? Do South African racial minorities also need to see reflections of themselves in the new ANC leadership? Do they have to? What kind of ministerial mix are we going to see when the new government – likely to be led by the ANC – takes over the reins in 2009? Will it be seen to be culturally and racially inclusive or will it be seen to be representative of only one section of the population of this diverse country? Should consideration be given to creating quotas in this sense?  Does it matter?

In conclusion, as our society evolves further, there is a less and less refutable need for political parties to take more care of how their brands are perceived, to be more in tune with changing voter expectations and values, and to structure the behaviour of their representatives and messages to appeal to the increasingly sophisticated South African electorate. Old fashioned allegiances will progressively lose their appeal as our society evolves into the future.

How do our political parties want to be perceived?

Personally, if I were to be asked whom I would like to vote for today – based only on my perception of existing political party brands – I would probably ask to be given more time to think about it!