If none of the parties contesting next week’s elections has set your pulse racing, it’s not because your political heart is flatlining.
The campaigns have been mediocre at best and followed the pattern of every South African election since “the birth of Adam and Eve”, says marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk.
Only Economic Freedom Fighters “commander-in-chief” Julius Malema stood out from the pack.
“If you had to say to me, choose the best political marketer in this country, it’s Julius Malema by a mile. The best we’ve ever had is Nelson Mandela, but coming second to him, not a close second, but way ahead of everybody else, is Julius Malema,” Moerdyk said.
This was because the former ANC Youth League boss understood the “absolute fundamental of marketing communication”, which was based on the premise “It’s not what I want to say, but what my customers want to hear”.
“Nobody else is doing that, all of them – (President Jacob) Zuma, the ANC, the DA – they are saying what they want to say, and not what their ‘customers’ want to hear, whereas Malema is doing precisely that. He knows exactly what his followers want to hear and he’s telling it to them.”
However, Malema would probably not fully translate his marketing prowess into voter support because many of his followers – those younger than 30 – hadn’t registered to vote.
Moerdyk said the other opposition parties had fallen back on the traditional campaign method of badmouthing the governing party, failing in the process to project what they had to offer.
“I think it’s a carryover from the apartheid years because obviously the opposition parties in the apartheid years had a lot to say in terms of bashing the governing party.”
This was particularly true of the DA, which had begun to properly articulate what it had to offer only in the closing stages of the campaign.
“It’s not as though they haven’t been doing it, they have, but it’s been completely overshadowed by this fixation on talking about what the ANC hasn’t done, or what the ANC has done wrong,” Moerdyk said.
He believed opposition parties had fallen into the trap of focusing especially on the Nkandla scandal, to the detriment of their own campaigns.
“In terms of applying marketing, whether you’re applying it to a product or service or politics, it’s no different, it’s the process of motivating people towards a specific goal.
“What you certainly don’t do is waste your time in marketing by trying to trash your competitor. It just doesn’t work. All you’re doing is preaching to the converted.”
Dr Ibrahim Saleh, convener of the political communication programme at UCT, disagreed, saying Nkandla offered the DA a “golden hour” on which it could capitalise. It had argued the country couldn’t afford another five years of Zuma.
The ANC’s efforts to protect Zuma, on the other hand, had “backfired spectacularly”.
“Sometimes, love can be blind, blocking the political realisation of abuse and scandal,” said Saleh.
Trying to shield Zuma from attempts to hold him accountable had escalated the scandal and placed it at centre stage of the campaign.
“It was a showcase of failing to address a political crisis in a very critical time before the elections,” he said, whereas the party should instead have taken “full ownership of authorship of the Nkandla story”.
While Moerdyk agreed the ANC had bungled the Nkandla issue – except from the point of view of Zuma supporters – he didn’t think this would hurt it badly in the poll.
It was similar to Catholics who lamented the many failings of their church. “If you had to say to any of those Catholics, ‘If you’re so upset about the Catholic Church, why don’t you become a Methodist or an Anglican’, they’d look at you in horror,” Moerdyk said.
Many ANC supporters who were angered by the behaviour of the leadership preferred to stay loyal to the party in the hope of fixing it from within.
“You’ve got the radically unhappy people like Ronnie Kasrils, but you’ve got the others, people like Jay Naidoo, who are not saying ‘we’re going to become Methodists’. They are saying ‘we’re going to stay members of the ANC and we’re going to work within the ANC to change what we don’t like about it’.
“So the ANC is still incredibly powerful, there’s no question about it,” said Moerdyk.
Saleh said there was a new dynamic, however, which was the growing perception that the old political order might be subject to change, “at least more than is expected or what was expected”.
The negative response by the government and cabinet to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report had created deep rifts.
“And the saga is not between the opposition parties and the ANC. The report has reflected stark faultlines within the ANC, the unions and the Christian clergy,” Saleh said.
The increased use of social media was a new phenomenon. “But it is too early to estimate to what extent it is a factor in political campaigning and results.”
There had been little marketing finesse in the campaign overall.
“On a scale of marketing sophistication, the election campaigns of all the parties, with zero being bad and 10 being excellent, they’ve hardly passed two,” Moerdyk said.