Although there is little doubt about who will win on 7 May, South Africa’s political parties still need to all maximise their vote. Therefore, timing the long election campaign to ‘peak’ at the right time remains critical.
Peaking as close to election day as possible – i.e. getting your campaign message efficiently delivered to the electorate in the latter few weeks and even days of the campaign remains a crucial feature of modern polls.
Ultimately, an election is not like selling a Toyota where purchases can be made at any period. Rather, it is a very time specific event designed to focus the mind on a defined day - not dissimilar to a one-day sale where timing is everything.
And, while ‘peaking’ is always desired at the right time, being too strong too early in a campaign can mean a loss of momentum in the period immediately before the vote.
In South Africa’s single-dominant political system where identity politics continues to be the predominant factor, a few percentage points either way for the larger political parties is all that we are talking about. Elsewhere in the world, a gain or loss of these marginal levels of support would be relatively insignificant but in our rigid system they become our focus.
The ANC were certainly able to score early in the election campaign capitalising on the passing of Nelson Mandela
and the emotional and historic reminder that evoked in the minds of black South Africans the role of the party in the liberation struggle.
Equally important – and playing into that narrative – was the well-crafted “South Africa is a much better place than in 1994” tag line that took a positive approach to rewarding the ANC with another term in office. By early February, the ANC had therefore already peaked strongly and the opinion polls bore this out.
By contrast, the DA were left on the political sidelines as the struggle history re-invoked in December engulfed the country. And, the sheer power of the ANC Manifesto Launch and the positive message of the campaign contrasted with a much more ‘negative’ DA campaign that chose to focus on President Zuma rather on the party’s policies.
To that end, the DA have largely campaigned negatively and continue to do so. Opinion polls show that the party has struggled to gain traction as a result of this.
The only other party to make any impact has been the EFF. Novelty value and personality-driven, the EFF gained a foothold with its populist and confrontational style appealing to a segment of the electorate left-behind by the ANC’s ‘good story’. However, as the campaign has progressed, the EFF has not necessarily strengthened but rather has consolidated its early support ‘bump’.
The three biggest players all therefore are confronting the final two weeks with distinct challenges. For the ANC, the early peak was perhaps just too early. Following weeks of Nkandla-based condemnation, the party is under strain although polls still show it holding onto early gains.
The last two weeks may therefore all be about the DA’s ability to improve its prospects as it is has both the resources and national footprint to do so. It has to refocus on a few core party policies that are innovative yet failed to be adequately publicised and clearly articulated by the party in its obsession with President Zuma.
This would include the commitment to massive title-deed roll-outs and enabling small businesses to rent space at R1 per year. Perhaps it’s simply too late to expect these vote-catching policies to be explained – but this is surely where the party needs to place its remaining election budget.
Secondly, the DA was caught napping by the effectiveness of the EFF launch. And, it lost valuable campaign time by only attacking Zuma and the ANC whilst it witnessed Julius Malema
eating into the role of being a new Opposition spokesperson.
The DA should have already also taken on the EFF and clearly differentiated itself from that party let alone (as reports suggest) think about coalescing with it in future. Only last week, the DA’s youth leader in an ENCA broadcast debate from Wits University took the fight directly to the EFF – and pretty effectively as well.
In other words, differentiating yourself is critical. The DA might make a big play about its ‘blue wave’ but it seriously needs to put some proverbial ‘clear-blue-water’ between it and the ANC – and EFF. The ‘blurred-lines’ approach from the party in praising the Mandela and particularly Mbeki era has done it little good if the current polls are to believed.
When identity politics remains as strong as it does in South Africa, creating political ambiguity as the DA have done only provides undecided voters with the rationale to again choose the more powerful custodians of the Liberation – the ANC.
Finally, there is a stark reality for any political party despite any advice from armchair analysts and the chattering classes like this author. You can’t really change a campaign two weeks before an election.
So, it’s a matter of small tweaks that don’t cost too much – changing the stump speeches at rallies; being consistently on point in TV debates; doing last minute advertising or leaflet drops with a fine-tuned message on policy that might appeal to more swing-oriented voters like ‘born-frees’ and most critically, making sure your on-the-day election machine brings out every possible DA voter and more.
And, if an external factor like the SABC banning the DA’s Ayisafani adverts occurs, swiftly use these to your benefit – and full credit to the DA for doing that.
With two weeks to go, the DA looks as though it’s off its campaign lows – but no-where near the highs it had hoped for.
Still, with clever manipulation of message in the remaining time and with undecided voters still mulling over their choice, the party can move beyond the latest IPSOS poll of around 23% towards at least 25% and perhaps even slightly better making this a ‘peak’ result for the party and restoring some credibility to its less-than-spectacular campaign.
For the ANC, its earlier peaks of close to a two-thirds majority have now been breached and the party increasingly needs a result above 60& to provide it with some security for the future. It’s own result is more likely to represent a modest low-point of its 2014 campaign.
For the EFF, Malema’s message has not really changed and the initial excitement seems to have stabilised as voters traditionally shift to the larger parties as polling day looms. A 4-5% showing for the new party will represent a steady ‘peak’ achieved throughout the campaign.
In the last few weeks, it is really the DA who has the most to gain given its lacklustre start. And, its ability to reach a ‘peak’ will be critical in forging its future as a real entity that can potentially play power politics or be left as a bystander while South African politics mutates away from the center to the left.