DA billboard a shameful act of political opportunism

DA leader Mmusi Maimane unveiled a billboard listing the names of those who died at Marikana, in the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the children who drowned after falling into pit latrines.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane unveiled a billboard listing the names of those who died at Marikana, in the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the children who drowned after falling into pit latrines.

The DA's billboard listing the names of the Life Esidimeni victims was a shameful, insensitive act of political opportunism, made worse by the inability to admit to the hurt and offence caused, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Just when I think politicians can't sink any lower, they always prove me wrong.

Last week the DA unveiled a billboard on Queen Elizabeth Drive in Johannesburg. The billboard depicted a fist dripping with blood and the words: "The ANC is killing us."

It also listed the names of the 144 psychiatric patients who were killed during the Life Esidimeni tragedy, those killed during the Marikana massacre, as well as the children who died after falling into pit latrines at schools.

READ: Bosasa, Esidimeni outrage exposes our disengagement

As any sensitive person could have predicted, this caused huge anguish for many of the family members of those whose names were on the billboard.

A spokesperson for the families of the Esidimeni victims confirmed that they had not been consulted and that they had never agreed to the names being on the billboard. A member of the Life Esidimeni Families Committee, Andrew Pietersen, said: "I think it is a terrible way of using people's pain to pursue your own political ends. It is a terrible move by the DA."

Of course, no one would disagree with that… except the DA.

After an angry outcry by the victims' families, Mmusi Maimane went on PowerFM with Thabiso TT Tema. In true Helen-what-is-wrong-with-colonialism-Zille style he defended the billboard. "I respect how the families feel," he said, yet added that he did not feel that the DA had done anything wrong.

His main defence was that those who died were not faceless or nameless. "They were human beings," he said defensively.

Exactly! Human beings who are tragically no longer in a position to decide for themselves whether they want to be used by a political party. The DA has no right to use the names or images of any living persons who are not public figures on a political poster without the necessary consent. So why do they think it is in order to use the names of people who had died in horrific circumstances without the consent of their families?

Political point-scoring ahead of election

Maimane argued that if they could not use the names then the names should not have been made public during the commissions of inquiry into the deaths. This is where I started to wonder if Maimane was playing dumb or was just being insensitive.

It is clearly totally different for a judge to honour the dead as Justice Dikgang Moseneke so sensitively did when he read all the names during the arbitration hearings, than for a political party to use it in a move to score political points in the run-up to an election. This point was also made by Tema during the interview.

"But," objected Maimane, "it had nothing to do with the elections. That is why I did not put DA branding on it." (At this point I was wondering if he thought all the listeners were stupid).

Yes, the billboard has no DA branding on it, but presumably in order not to waste a very expensive publicity stunt (people might have thought it was an EFF poster) Maimane and a large contingent of DA supporters, all in DA branded T-shirts, marched to the billboard for the unveiling, thus unveiling also the disingenuous nature of his argument.

He further claimed that this was actually a way of honouring the victims – again, so that they don't remain faceless and nameless.

I'm sure everyone in this country will agree that these victims should be honoured. If the DA had a year ago assisted the families to put up a monument or even taken out a press advertisement with the words: "Let's remember…" or "Let us not forget" and the names of the victims and without any DA branding, then it would have been a beautiful and powerful gesture.

Instead they waited until 5 months before an election to put up a poster which has more to do with the ANC than the victims. Yet, they want us to believe it has nothing to do with the upcoming election.

PR success at what price?

To make matters worse, Maimane further claimed that he respected the families' feelings and would "converse with them". A few days later former Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga also said: "We do need to hear cries whenever there might be cries, not be tone deaf and [we must] be able to be responsive as well."

DA leader in Gauteng, John Moody, agreed: "Of course we care about the views of the families, we are not discounting it." However, then he added: "But the billboard will stay up for the period we have contracted it (to be up)."

So in other words: "We have paid for it and it is staying – no matter what the feelings of the families are."

This week the DA went one step further and added another sticker on the billboard which reads: "The ANC does not care about the people of South Africa" – thus ensuring another round of publicity.

I'm sure the DA's PR people are congratulating themselves with all the media coverage and will regard this as a very successful campaign.

But at what price?

It was a shameful, insensitive act of political opportunism, made worse by the total inability to admit to the hurt and offence caused. Not only has this re-opened many painful wounds for the families, but it has also illustrated yet again, how the DA fumbles from one PR disaster to another without being able to admit or correct their mistakes. 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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