Can struggle semiotics swing it for the DA?

2011-04-02 12:21

It seemed to take a lot of people by surprise – the inclusion last Saturday of “struggle” rhetoric, gesture and jargon at the launch of the Democratic Alliance’s election manifesto at Walter Sisulu Freedom Square
in Kliptown.

The “vivas”, the “halalas”, the fists punching the air, the rousing, the familiar chants and the toyi-toying.
It raises an interesting issue: To whom do the “accoutrements” of struggle in this country – the songs, the dances, the slogans – belong?

The semiotics of politics – not what is said or spoken but what is signified by the choice of colours, music, language and gesture – is about a subtle communication between politicians and voters.

The governing party, the ANC, has always understood this. Since 1994 it has tried to appropriate many of the codes that underpinned the struggle inside the country in the 1980s, when the United Democratic Front and hundreds of other organisations banded together to form the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM).

Scholar and author Padraig O’Malley, in his sweeping and meticulously researched 2007 tome, Shades of Difference – Mac Maharaj and The Struggle For South Africa, explores this disconnect between the ANC in exile and political currents inside the country.

The June 16 1976 march was organised by the Soweto Representative Council, linked to Steve Biko’s black consciousness movement.

O’Malley writes that the uprising took the ANC in exile by surprise and that it happened as a result of an accumulation of currents inside the country and out of range of the ANC’s influence.

“Although the MDM did not know it, the ANC in exile needed the MDM far more than the MDM needed the ANC,” he writes.

The difference between former DA leader Tony Leon and its current leader, Helen Zille, is that she was a part of the struggle in the 1980s as a member of the End Conscription Campaign, the Black Sash and the Open City Initiative.

Her home in Rosebank was used as a safe house by ANC cadres on the run from apartheid police.

Saturday’s launch was a far, far cry from the self-conscious, awkward and at times embarrassing proceedings at the DA’s federal congress in Midrand in May 2007 when Leon stepped down and Zille was voted in.

Back then, corny curio-shop images of lions and mud huts flashed on a large screen while old nostalgic Johnny Clegg numbers like Spirit of the Great Heart blared from the loudspeakers.

On Saturday it was Ma Brrr’s anthemic Vul’indlela (Open The Road) that ushered in Zille, dressed in symbolic black and white. And of course the choice of the historic Kliptown – the place where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955 – was also a calculated move.

The point is that, ultimately, you can’t toyi-toyi if it’s not in your blood or part of your consciousness.

Whether this will result in a larger share of the black vote for the DA remains to be seen.

» Thamm is an award-winning columnist, editor and journalist

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