Monday, 20 October 2008

Hire a media strategist, already!

I am angry. I am pissed off. I am angry and frustrated. It's not rational, carefully thought out anger and frustration. Nor is it burning rage that can be successfully channelled into productive activity - although it may become that. I suppose really it is disappointment. I am frustrated and disappointed with the ANC.

Let me say, before I go any further, that I do not subscribe to the idea that ANC=bad. I like the ANC, I like the freedom charter, I love the South African constitution and I think that what has been achieved since 1994 is so staggeringly impressive that South Africa once again doesn't fit into any of the boxes historically available. I realise this is not necessarily a popular perspective and I'm not interested in pursuing that debate right at this point.

This frustration does not relate to that. It's not frustration with poor service delivery or stupid policies. I am frustrated because the current ANC NEC are playing the political game badly. I know a lot of people would rejoice at the idea that someone involved in politics is not playing games. I think they should stop being naive. For better or worse (and probably mostly better than the alternatives) Democracy is the prevailing modern system. In order to get anything done in a democracy, you have to be in power. In order to get into power, you have to win elections. In order to win elections, you have to play the game. That is the reality. The naive day-dreaming of people who would like to see a situation where 'true leaders' ran the country without any 'sordid electioneering' is as naive as those who want a communist heaven to suddenly materialise in South Africa without losing any of the income of our very capitalist industries.

I love the game. The reason the West Wing is my favourite TV show is because I'm fascinated and exhilarated by how people win the support and votes they need to make a difference. The swing and the twists, the gentle maneuvering of public perception and the exquisite management of crises thrills me. The ANC hasn't been particularly exceptional at this in recent years, but they have had some successes. Also, they have had some pretty good speech-writers and media consultants who knew enough to seriously limit what could have been some extremely damaging situations. Had they not stirred up a hornet's next by 'recalling' Mbeki, they could probably have gotten away with that. But they did. So they are now up against people who have just as much publicity as they do and who, it appears, actually understand how this game is played.

The Lekota faction are playing it beautifully. They stand up at rallies and appeal to people who live in constant fear and feel like they are ignored and excluded from political processes and them that democracy is about them and they should have the right to choose their leaders rather than "a small group who threaten us with violence". The ANC hits back by saying that they want to discipline dissidents for criticising the ANC.

Lekota and Shilowa talk about how they believe in democracy and the ANC freedom charter and the values of our constitution. The ANC chooses this moment to tell the world that the ANC has done nothing to fight poverty in the past 13 years and they're going to fix it by setting up a ministry and removing control of finances from the finance ministry - the most successful ministry in the country - all of which runs contrary to the constitution.

The new group gets groundswells of support from unhappy ANC members across the country. The ANC publicly criticise the ANC-government-controlled public broadcaster for giving too much coverage to the break-aways.

Lekota and Shilowa easily combine the mixture of professional business-man with ordinary working person in their look. Mothlathe wears badly tailored suits and looks like a schoolboy trying out his father's outfits - or someone trying a little too hard to mimic Mbeki's suave style - while Zuma attempts to blind the public by dancing and Duarte comes across as inarticulate and conflicted.

Lekota and co. suggest a national convention where ordinary South Africans can debate what they want from the future of the country and talk about whether they want to start a new political party. The ANC says any problems with the current situation of the country must be dealt with within the ANC and not talked about with the electorate.

Lekota and co. suggest that perhaps a system of direct representation is necessary to empower the people of South Africa to hold their leaders accountable. The ANC says those who criticise are just disgruntled because they didn't win and wants radical action against those who openly criticise the status quo.

I'm not even convinced the ANC actually means or believes all the things it's saying, they're just handing the situation so bloody badly.

Last night on a TV talk show, Mo Shaik, representing the ANC, said of Shilowa "he says he voluntarily joined the ANC, so he can voluntarily resign and voluntarily start a new party. Well, he can't!". Um... what?!? That's right folks, Shaik's argument was that Shilowa had no right to leave the ANC. Shilowa, who has resigned from the ANC. Shaik was also suggesting that the move to start a new political party would result in Shilowa being disciplined under the ANC constitution. Despite the fact that Shilowa is no longer an ANC member. W.T.F.? Even Shilowa seemed a little taken aback that in to his fairly accurate analysis that some of their recent moves had been undemocratic and that he and the people who were with him felt that the current ANC executive might not be ideally placed to resolve the challenges facing South Africa was, Shaik's response from the ANC was, "you can't leave the ANC".

Shaik also said that the move to start a new party was dangerous. This after a week of those speaking on behalf of the party dismissing the Lekota group as a bunch of disgruntled wanna-bes. Although, to be fair, there have been some murmers in line with Shaiks statement. Like threats to take 'radical action' against those people who leave the party (from Zuma). I also read an infuriated piece about how 'they' will never take power because -I kid you not- the ANC is ordained by God to run the country till Christ returns and beyond (Eastern Cape ANC Youth League - it was in the paper, I swear to you!).

My point is, could somebody, anybody please take control of the ANC message, decide who is allowed to speak on behalf of the party and what they're supposed to say. And when they pick a party line can it please, please be something more intelligent than 'you're not allowed to leave the ANC'?

I suppose I'm most frustrated because the political game, the strategy, the careful and intricate work of constructing and managing the message, the beautiful play of words and emotions and policies and people, is something I love. And it's currently being disrespected by the ruling party to the extent that they're making us all look stupid. Despite the fact that we all KNOW they have enough money to hire people who can do it. I'm not sure I'd invest in a country where the ruling party can't get it together enough to pick a line and stick to it. Investors must be loving the fact that in the same week the President has said their will be no change to ecomonic policy, the alliance partners are promising wholesale overhaul of all economic policies, particularly the crucial and effective inflation targetting and the meeting of the alliance says it's greatest economic priority is poverty allieviation (growth? who needs it!).

I doubt the ANC will lose the election but I think they'll lose a few provinces and a good portion of their 2/3 majority. And when they do, it will be entirely their own fault - because they couldn't get it together enough to put out a unified message and a message that didn't sound idiotic. And because they had the audacity to assume the South African public were stupid and wouldn't notice that they were threatening things that were illegal or not possible and changing their tune three times a day.


  1. The ANC needs more than a good media strategist to get them through the next six months. They appear to have reined in people like Malema (and I gather the ANCYL has a great new spokesperson, Floyd someone-or-other, who is handling media marvellously) - but the damage is done. The SACP and Cosatu continue to bleat, and to spout absolute nonsense. And although they are not STRICTLY the ANC, the majority of people see them ONLY as alliance partners and believe that whatever Nzimande or Vavi says is ANC gospel.

    If they'd appointed a good media manager (or a team thereof) a year ago, they could have been saved from taking a major beating in the 2009 elections. As it is, the ANC will lose the Western Cape, potentially lose major cities in other provinces, and will lose its 2/3rds majority. It's good for democracy, I reckon, so I'm glad they didn't pull finger and get savvy sooner.