Political rivals put out their online stalls

2009-01-24 00:00

With the rapturous inauguration of its 44th president over, life in the United States now returns to normal. Or at least, as normal as it can be given the international financial meltdown, domestic economic collapse and involvement in two sapping wars.

Here things are just beginning to heat up. Have pity for ordinary South Africans who face three or four months of pre-general election hell.

Analysts will be scrutinising even the most mundane developments, pontificating about the implications. Poster-perfect politicians will leer down seductively from every lamppost, just out of reach of malevolent supporters of rival candidates and the urinary ablutions of irreverent dogs.

Ah, and the promises. The air is already thick with extravagant pledges and siren songs. Party leaders are eternally confident of the loyalty — read “gullibility” — of their supporters.

As for the voters, we never learn. Despite bitter experience and regular disillusionment, the majority of us dutifully turn out and make our X, hoping that this time will be different.

Local politicians have noted the importance in Barack Obama’s victory of using the Internet to shape perceptions. So far, however, the lesson has been rather unimaginatively rendered here.

Part of it is demographics. Because of poverty and illiteracy, a far smaller percentage of African National Congress voters use the Internet than, say, Democratic Alliance voters.

While the ANC will use tried-and-tested vote-catching methods — free T-shirts, busing supporters to large rallies where there is plenty to eat and drink — the Internet has always played an important role in its propaganda. It is an efficient, inexpensive way to mobilise its activists country wide and to lay down the party line on any issue.

More sinister, it is a great way to rewrite history, since a changed website — unlike a printed publication — leaves no permanent record of what went before. So on the ANC’s site the sycophantic words describing the great leader, Thabo Mbeki, are now more perfunctory, while the biography of Jacob Zuma is correspondingly warmer.

Neither Zuma’s legal travails nor the manner of Mbeki’s unwilling exit from the presidency get a mention. History is what you decide it to be.

American razzmatazz has always appealed to the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition. Former leader Tony Leon had his “battle bus” and film-star entrances with swelling music. His successor, Helen Zille, has had a style make-over, complete with a new power-dressing wardrobe and botox.

The DA website was revamped when the DA opportunistically announced its “relaunch” last year. Since there was no change in policy, nor in leadership, what the relaunch amounted to was a desperate attempt to draw attention during the protracted establishment of its rival, the Congress of the People.

The DA has clearly decided to build its campaign around Zille. This is probably just as well, given that two of the three people shown under “Our Leaders” — the DA’s parliamentary leader and national chairman — have announced that they are leaving politics.

A large, airbrushed picture of an embarrassed-looking Zille dominates the masthead. The site itself confirms this is a one-woman party and unlike the previous version, it does not list its public representatives and their portfolios, nor even its provincial leaders.

But Zille is not quite as narcissistic as Independent Democrat leader Patricia de Lille, whose photograph appears 21 times on one of the ID’s web pages, including one of her wearing an Obama T-shirt to congratulate her “brother” on his victory. Poor Obama has become the political equivalent of the Madonna of Lourdes — touch his hem and eternal public life will be yours.

The most hopeless lot is the Congress of the People. Its site is drearily amateurish.

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