An edited extract from Eusebius McKaiser’s new book, Could I vote DA?
Johannesburg - In a sense, the DA is a political party that basically behaves likes a high-school pupil who has recently become addicted to debating.
They are not terribly good at it yet, but better than the lazy kids and plain untalented kids who are not in the debating club, and so with newfound cockiness they show off their debating skill.
You see it in the muscularity of an angry James Selfe rant, or even worse, an angrier Dianne Kohler-Barnard, who can be an assault on the eardrums.
When I listen to these, and many other DA leaders, I get deeply embarrassed about my past as a competitive debater, as a speaker and as a coach and a judge.
Because in the tone and the restricted techniques of the DA politicians within the debate arena of our public discourse, I see in a fresh way the horror of someone addicted to the diet of adversarial, competitive, debate-like communication.
And that is what I want to explore. How the tone-deaf communication strategy of the DA costs the party.
It alienates the party from voters who do not speak English well, for starters.
It alienates the party from South Africans who do not worship the Westminster culture of politics the way I do. And, frankly, it gives unnecessary ammo to someone who wants to hold on to the belief that this party consists of a bunch of mostly white ageing leaders (and now some black ones too) who are shouting at the rest of us. Let’s take a closer look.
Early in 2012 I attended an event for young professionals hosted by the DA at the Rosebank Hotel in Joburg. Parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko was a big drawcard for many who had rushed from their jobs to be there in time.
The atmosphere was great, and reminded me of the buzz many people experienced at Cope’s events soon after its founding. There was a sense of optimism that Mazibuko, of the same age as many in the room, could convince those present that the DA was the perfect alternative to the ANC.
Sadly, Mazibuko did not have a sense of the burden resting on her shoulders. And during the question-and-answer session, an unfortunate incident was to play out.
Two young women sat close to me. They were black, and could not have been older than about 21.
One of them put up her hand and said she was studying at UCT. She was about to graduate and feared that, as a black person, she might have some hurdles to jump in the corporate sector and so was a little scared of her prospects of entering the job market successfully.
She was wondering what advice the DA had for a prospective black graduates with such fears, and would be grateful for some words of wisdom from Ms Mazibuko.
I cringed a little at the question because it felt a bit like a career guidance question. But I was cringing as someone who is not a politician. I was cringing as an anonymous member of the public.
Lindiwe, of course, was on public display as an elected official of the DA, there to build her party’s brand among young professionals.
In particular, she had to try to increase the number of new voters for her party, especially among the young people and black people present that evening – by schmoozing.
That’s the business of being a politician, right? And, if anything, the question might have been a little high school-ish in its demand for words of wisdom. But it was actually a gift for an eloquent black woman; a chance to inspire a younger version of yourself. Easy as parliamentary pie. Surely?
Lindiwe responded rapidly, and with a fiery tone that astonished me, along the lines of: “I’m surprised that anyone who is at UCT would have confidence problems. If you can get into UCT, then you should not have confidence issues. It is not my job to come to UCT and give pep talks.”
I was gobsmacked. As were the young ladies. I had never seen enthusiasm drain from a face so quickly. And as soon as the question-and-answer session was over, they dashed for the exit, ignoring the free cocktails on offer.
Lindiwe had surely lost the opportunity of turning the two young black women into DA disciples with her curt, thoughtless and heartless response to a perfectly sincere, if a little clumsy, request for job-market advice.
Worse, many of us who were bystanders were irritated on behalf of the young woman.
In that moment of responding to her, Lindiwe was addressing many black professionals who were not interested in the ANC Youth League – why else come to a DA event?
They were, perhaps, not yet sure whether to “take a chance” on the DA. Not every single person in the room was already a DA convert.
But certainly almost everyone was prepared to hear the DA out – and therefore Lindiwe had to be savvy enough to know that everything she said, and how she said it, could determine whether or not she could convert possible DA supporters into actual DA supporters.
But, as was confirmed when I spoke to a number of people later, her response to the UCT student undid a lot of the good work of her main speech delivered earlier in the evening.
The lesson, from a public engagement viewpoint, is clear: take particular care as a politician what it is you say and how you say it when you are not following the script of a prepared speech.
Your true political character comes through most clearly during a question-and-answer session, and clearly that is exactly what happened – badly so – for Lindiwe that evening. There is a more fundamental point to this story.
As I wonder whether I could vote for the DA, I wonder whether I could vote for a party that does not know how to communicate with me properly.
When I have flashbacks of Lindiwe’s response to that student, I think to myself: “Typical DA! Arrogant! Shouty!
“Makes the voter’s problem the voter’s problem and not a DA or our collective problem!”
Put simply, the DA is tone deaf. They haven’t a clue just how incredibly know-it-all they come across as.
First, Lindiwe showed no empathy in that response. Rapidfire sentences, loudly delivered, to someone who was having an existential crisis about their future in front of a huge crowd, does not show empathy for their plight. It shows a lack of humanity. It shows insufficient emotional intelligence.
Second, Lindiwe showed no understanding of strategic political communication in that response.
If she had ever thought about the DA’s communication weaknesses over the past few years, she would inevitably have come to the conclusion that, going back to the Tony Leon years, the DA has endured a public image of a party that is aggressive in its communication.
And so party leaders must now mix up the tone with which they communicate. Smile. Lower your voice. Sometimes show a bit of emotion.
Nod your head in understanding of the young woman’s troubles.
If needs be, yes, even fake it a little bit, dammit.
You are not in the business of authenticity as a politician. Politicians might claim, as a cheap electioneering ploy, to be sincere, but being a career politician is just another job.
And one of the outcomes that you need to achieve is to persuade millions of voters that you feel for them; that you empathise with them.
Lindiwe showed zero strategic communication sense that evening. She just showed how tone deaf she is. Like her party has been for years.
And what this means, for me as a voter who is unsure about whether to vote for them, is that just as I come close to resolving that doing so might be a good decision for me and the country, I simply get irritated at being patronised, being spoken down to, being assumed to be dumb, being shouted at.
Such is the stuff that comes from the mouths of most of the DA leadership. And it is a key reason why it is hard to fall in love with the DA.
Sadly for the DA, these things matter. Politics is not only, as much as they wish it were otherwise, a matter of making rational calculations about the hard skills of respective parties’ politicians and evaluating their different policy proposals.
If I sufficiently dislike you as a person, as a politician, as a political brand, then I might overlook policy considerations. You may call that irrational. But calling it irrational will not help you get into power. Change the tone of your communications.