South Africa needs its ‘Sputnik’ moment

Fikile Mbalula likes the word “razzmatazz”. He says it a lot, both as minister of sport and recreation and as the ANC’s campaigns head.

He used razzmatazz – which conjures up images of sparkly leotards and tinsel pompoms – to punt a forthcoming football game between world champions Spain and an Africa XI team.

Mbalula also used the word to drum up excitement ahead of the ruling party’s 99th anniversary celebration in Polokwane.

Again, razzmatazz seemed somewhat misplaced to describe Africa’s oldest liberation movement with a proud legacy of revolutionary activism and a parade of heroic leaders.

The dilemma is, what word is appropriate to describe the ANC in 2011, when “sushi-millionaires”, “tenderpreneurs” and the “bling-bling brigade” have taken over its culture?

The ANC will have to contend with this question as it contemplates its local government election campaign.

Previously, backroom strategists turned out phrases like “working together we can do more”, “business unusual”, “the year of action” and so on to define the ANC government’s programme of action. In the dying years of the Mbeki administration, the catch-phrase was “apex priorities”.

The Zuma government introduced the “outcomes” approach, setting out a programme of action of 12 broad targets with delivery agreements.

Generally, these are more about clever branding for government work than how the state machinery practically operates.

Every year, the state of the nation and ministerial budget speeches are dressed up as groundbreaking announcements which make headlines but rarely make sense to ordinary citizens.

This year’s municipal elections will test public sentiment at grassroots level ahead of the party’s 100th anniversary.

And while the ANC’s 2012 elective conference looms large, current and aspiring leaders need to start choosing their words carefully.

The ANC has been fortunate that its core constituency has been largely unfazed by turbulence and leadership battles, and remained faithful at the polls.

A significant proportion of the electorate has vivid memories of apartheid as well as the ANC’s glory days, but these recede with each year.

New generations of voters will be less influenced by the ANC’s romantic liberation history and more by their own life experiences.

The 2009 election strategy, with Jacob Zuma as the consummate victim turned superhero as the ticket, has also passed its sell-by date.

The service delivery protests and xenophobic violence are throbbing indicators of the level of discontent in communities and those hoping to hold on to or sway voters need to address the issues which provoked the uprisings.

Power battles lead to a dangerous rise in rhetoric and, as the former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin discovered, words can be deadly.

We are fortunate that ANC Youth League President Julius Malema’s “kill for Zuma” was not taken literally as a deranged youngster in Arizona interpreted Palin’s rhetoric and gun metaphors, leading him to shoot a Democratic congresswoman and kill six others.

But political speak also has the power to inspire and capture the world’s imagination, as Barack Obama demonstrates time and again – from “Yes we can” to the “Sputnik moment” in this week’s state of the union address.

On Tuesday, the US President spoke of how investing in research and education during the Space Race led to innovation and the creation of new industries and jobs. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said.

Our youth is also crying out for marching orders like: “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make a difference in the life of a child, become a teacher. Your country needs you.”

We also want to hear our president say: This is a place where you can make it if you try”.

South Africa needs its Sputnik moment.

» Munusamy is a communications consultant based in ­Johannesburg

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