AS WE gradually pick up speed heading towards the 2016 local government elections, we shall see our political parties – big and small, established and wannabes – begin to increase the sound and visibility of their courtship dances.
On the one hand, those already in power, starting with the ruling African National Congress followed by the Democratic Alliance, will begin to look around the turf already under their control to see which domains are vulnerable for possible takeover by their rivals, and to determine consolidation and expansion strategies.
The official opposition, the DA, and the contender for its position, the Economic Freedom Fighters, followed by the smaller parties, will be seen shooting more political pellets at one another and the ruling ANC with the hope of dislodging their rivals from some of the domains they currently hold.
Judging by the way it’s been punching way above its weight since entering the political arena a mere two years ago, the EFF already sees itself as a government-in-waiting – a claim often made by the official opposition. But Julius Malema’s party is not shy to state this claim even on its social media platforms. In fact, it is probably the EFF’s seemingly reckless confidence that often seems to rattle the more established parties, including the ANC.
But to make their dreams come true, all of these political parties have to start paying a little more attention to their own image and how it is perceived by us, those who will vote for or against them when the time comes. Our collective eyes are on their conduct.
This, the oldest liberation movement in Africa and now a ruling political party since the advent of South Africa’s democracy, should be the most threatened by what could come out of the 2016 elections. After 21 years in power, and having led the country’s transition from the dark years of apartheid into the new era with relative stability, the ANC has also gathered some unwanted battle scars along the way.
In the early years, under the almost perfect stewardship of the inimitable and widely loved Nelson Mandela – together with his generation of liberation stalwarts – the ANC couldn’t go wrong. To win our hearts and minds, all it needed to do was point us back to where we came from, reminding us through song, dance and images as well as heroic and painful anecdotes of what we had left behind.
The silent driving slogan has been “backwards never; forward ever,” and it worked each time. Up to the last general elections, it has been relatively easy for the ANC to win the hearts and minds of the older generation of black South Africans who lived through and retained vivid memories of the hardships of apartheid.
For this generation, voting for another party would have been tantamount to betrayal reminiscent of those who spied on behalf of “the enemy” during the struggle years, and put the lives of fellow comrades and their loved ones in peril.
But much has since changed, and so has the post-Madiba ANC in the eyes of many. The young, so-called born frees are less easily won over through song, dance and anecdote. Increasing numbers of their parents are also less happy with what many consider betrayal in the form of rampant corruption, too many failed cases of cadre deployment and endless strings of bad, indefensible decisions.
With its mixed record, the ANC must work harder to clean up its tarnished image and start developing forward-looking reasons to win voters’ hearts and minds. It can no longer rely on reminding us ad nauseam of its fast receding anti-apartheid bravery, let alone claiming to be continuing the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
The official opposition – and contender
The jury is still out on whether the new DA leader has what it takes to continue growing the party’s turf, as begun by his predecessor. How he plays his cards between now and next year will determine the extent to which Mmusi Maimane will manage to convince more South Africans, especially traditional ANC supporters, that the party he leads will not use them for voting fodder while catering to the needs of its traditional white voter base.
This is an accusation the DA’s detractors continue to throw in its face in the Western Cape and elsewhere. Perceptions being what they are, Maimane has his work cut out for him to use successes garnered in the Western Cape to good account, to demonstrate that he can be the kind of leader increasing numbers of South Africans are hungry for.
If he does it right, he could also convince some of those unhappy with the ANC but scared off by EFF rhetoric to swing in the DA’s direction.
But he has to oppose the ANC while keeping one eye on the fast-approaching EFF, which will continue using all sorts of tricks to make him feel unsure of himself. Having managed to last as long as it has by challenging established parliamentary decorum through a combination of dress sense and a fearless, bombastic approach to parliamentary debate, the EFF might still surprise many.
But to do so, it too will have to expand the thematic content of its parliamentary and public pronouncements to avoid being seen as a one-issue party, even though this might not be so.
The smaller parties, many of them one-man shows as far as perceptions go, will either gradually be eclipsed, like Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats, or remain mere kingmakers at local level.
In the end, as the disillusioned South African voter becomes increasingly informed, militant, discerning and opinionated, our political parties will have to raise the bar and learn to blow more than just hot air.
They must genuinely work on their image and respect our independent institutions of democracy if they want to win our love.