Parties should diversify electioneering

2009-03-24 00:00

Clearly, the 2009 elections are about bread and butter issues, but there’s a lot of name-calling and scare-mongering. I get a sense that the basic issues of development and the economy are not as prominent as many expected given the global economic slow-down. Manifestos are like declarations at the end of a conference: they contain all the right things, but very few parties are spending much time telling voters about these promises. There is very little talk about party strategies for dealing with the conditions of poverty, ill-health, illiteracy, lack of skills, insufficient access to water and housing and lack of employment opportunities, among other issues.

But electioneering that is solely focused on these issues would be lacklustre. We enjoy it when parties grand-stand, do parties and trade occasional insults. Otherwise, it would sound like some big workshop. It would tire many and put off some from politics and even voting. It is not just the poor that like the hot side of politics, but also a large portion of the middle class, albeit secretly.

It is in us that we want some adrenalin-generating politics.

We enjoy it when politicians talk tough against each other. We enjoyed pre- and post-Polokwane fights in the ANC. We were not really outraged by the war of words between Julius Malema and Hellen Zille and Malema and the IFP’s Buthelezi Junior, even though there were many insults traded in the process.

But politicking and electioneering should not become a continuous war of words and name-calling.

If it does, it generates and entrenches negative attitudes. It becomes sordid and less tasty. It thus stops serving the purpose of heated talk, which is to generate interest, evoke emotions and allure votes to one’s party. Indeed, the Buthelezi-Malema war ended as the voices of reason moderated the debate with the two parties signing a pact on peaceful electioneering last month.

While Zille continues to publicly fume about Malema, the spat has lost its appeal because Malema has moved on to other issues.

My grandmother used to say if it is foolish to smack a person in the face for no reason, I should never smack back, or if I do I should not do it repeatedly lest a stranger stumbles in on me in the act at which point I would be the fool in the eyes of the third person.

Malema is very good at this game of getting others worked up before suddenly moving on, leaving the victims looking like fools. He has done this with many politicians with success. This weekend Zille was foolish to continue attacking Malema because although she is an intelligent politician, she does not know when to stop the tough-talking. She wants to win by having the last word in a game where the only way to win is to pull out first, leaving the other party looking like fools.

What parties need to learn to do is to play politics that balance talking tough and talking sense.

Ideally, the politicians that engage in the war of words and become notorious (or famous) should learn to switch quickly to reasoning with the voters with cool heads. Thus, they will appeal simultaneously to various voters. Last weekend in the Western Cape, the ANC’s Membathisi Mdladlana was blasting farmers for constraining the political rights of labourers, while Trevor Manuel used the same platform to talk thoughtfully about the ways of lifting people on farms out of poverty.

On the same day, Cope’s Mosiuoa Lekota continued to blast the ruling party over many usual issues, while Mvume Dandala played nice politics with the same audiences. Cope seem to have realised that electioneering is not about having a nice man with lots of morals in front. Even the Minority Front allows Amichand Rajbansi, “the Bengal Tiger”, to run riot on the DA, while Mrs S.

Rajbansi is calmly explaining party proposals on economic turn-around. In this way, the party gets to do both the fighting for votes and reasoning with voters.

But not many are able to do this Malema thing. The ID’s Patricia de Lille is good in this switching of talk during elections. To some extent Nadeco’s Reverend Mbatha is doing this. But being able to play all roles has meant that there is very little room for the rise of various faces representing these two parties.

The IFP could have positioned Zanele Magwaza-Msibi as the voice of reason on the basis of the fact that she is their future and she has presented herself relatively well as the executive mayor of Zululand, while Buthelezi continues the tough talking. Shouldn’t Joe Seremane be reasoning with us, while Zille is busy ranting about our being a banana republic? While Azapo’s Mosibudi Mangena is reasoning, the skilful Pandelani Nefolovhodwe should be drumming up the public emotion about their policies. The leaders of the ACDP and the UDM are one-dimensional, and so is their communication with the public. Parties should spend the next few weeks diversifying their electioneering and making use of the different styles within their ranks.

•Dr Siphamandla Zondi is Director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue

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