When the cat’s away

2011-05-14 13:30

If there has been a moment that symbolically captures or defines the tenacity and discipline of DA leader Helen Zille on her eight-week election campaign across the country, it was when a spotted field mouse scampered up her stonewashed bell-bottoms on a tour of Seshego, Limpopo, last month.

The tour lasted for about an hour, during which Zille posed in front of a resident’s toilet enclosed by a damp, torn cloth and gave interviews to the SABC and other journalists – all of this while seemingly composed and focused.

It was only about half an hour later that she managed to locate the mouse (which had settled in her groin) in the toilet of a Polokwane restaurant.

The manner in which Zille was able to keep her cool and carry on is indicative of her capacity to do what needs to be done in spite of the odds. It is this characteristic, coupled with an appetite for long work hours, that has marked her varied career.

Zille’s strategy has always been to grow the DA’s support in local government, from the bottom up, rather than the traditional top-down approach.

So far, it seems to have worked as the party has continued to grow its support, winning several important municipal by-elections across the country.

And now, for the first time in the country’s democratic history, a buoyant DA has gone into an election with a track record in governance. This has been the central message of the party’s campaign.

The DA is hoping to make “significant gains” in three hotly contested urban metros: Nelson Mandela Bay (where it garnered 24.4% in 2006), Tshwane (30.7%) and Joburg (27%).

It is expected that Nelson Mandela Bay will be a close call, while Tshwane and Joburg will just remain out of the DA’s grasp.

But the party expects significant growth in support in these areas. While loath to “raise expectations”, internal polls predict an increase in support of between 5% and 10%.

Zille hardly needs to mention the ruling party, as political incendiary bombs have dropped like manna throughout the campaign. She simply reads headlines and news reports to her jubilant supporters.

Another unlikely contributor to Zille’s speeches has been Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi, who commented that the ANC entered this election “with its tail between its legs and its back against the wall” – a position Zille delights in trying to portray on stage.

Zille’s itinerary in each region is dovetailed with arrangements made by local DA officials on the ground and there is much behind-the-scenes arguing and screaming down cellphones about the impossibility of certain planned events, and that they’re “pushing” Zille too hard.

Zille is, of course, oblivious to this sometimes-fraught wrangling and receives her final programme along with prepared research and the bones of a speech, which she works on during flights or in the car on the day she departs for a region.

She returns to Cape Town every week to fulfil her duties as Western Cape premier.

Once again, Zille kicked off the DA’s campaign at Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, the same iconic venue the party used to launch its 2009 campaign, which resulted in an overall majority in Western Cape.

This time, Zille entered to the DA’s chosen theme song for the campaign, Brenda Fassie’s Vul’indlela. She seemed to surprise commentators with her toyi-toying and chants of “viva” and “phambili”.

I found out later that Zille had practised her dance beforehand at her 92-year-old mother, Mila’s, home in Illovo and had been told: “Well, I’ve always said Europeans can’t dance,” to which Zille replied: “Well, mom, aren’t you glad there are no Europeans in the room?”

While the schedule is punishing, Zille is in her element interacting with DA officials, supporters and the countless members of the public who approach to shake her hand or ask to have their picture taken with her.

Each meeting across the country requires an astute “reading” of the audience and a delicate need to capture “the swing vote”.

Zille carefully judges which language she should use and often asks those gathered which they would prefer.

And so there was no toyi-toying in Modimolle, where tightlipped and curious Freedom Front Plus supporters filed into a cleaned-up old tyre fitment workshop to hear Zille speak.

There was also no sloganeering at a packed and elegant fundraising event in Pretoria, just Zille gently reminding the diners that as far as she was concerned the future in the DA is black and that they’d better get used to it.

Zille has been driven through small towns on donkey carts, been paraded through townships in the back of a bakkie, endured searing heat, mud and dust, and has eaten everything from umngqusho to curry, from burgers to Kit-Kats and chips on the run.

At the end of it all she would have attended close to 50 events and would have managed to traverse much of the country. What has been clearly evident is that black South Africans are not afraid to wear their DA T-shirts or identify with the party, even in the remotest of districts.

The results after May 18 will prove finally whether the DA’s track record in delivery and its more inclusive election strategy will, or can, appeal to a wider black constituency and encourage those who still “vote with their scars” to make a huge emotional and intellectual leap away from the ruling party.

» Thamm is a freelance journalist, columnist and editor. She occasionally moonlights as a stand-up comedian

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