Politics, like sport, has spectator value. The fortunes of a political party largely depend on optics. This means that the way in which voters perceive a party and its actions greatly informs where they put their Xs on the ballots.
In the world of sport, very few events bring to the fore the importance of optics quite like the super fight between the late Muhammad Ali and his highly fancied opponent George Foreman.
It was a fight Foreman was supposed to win easily - he was younger, bigger and a consummate brawler. Ali was rusty and more of a showman.
No one had seen a path to victory for Ali, and many believed he was not only going to be seriously hurt, they feared he could even be killed in the ring. Ali won that night because he had a superior tactical plan. It included winning the hearts and minds of the host nation, the then Zaire.
Ali used the streets of the capital Kinshasa to train, and he would pause at times to hug babies and common people. Foreman, on the other hand, had different plans. He brought his dog along and went out to training with it. It kept well-wishers at bay.
Unbeknown to Foreman, his dog was of the same breed as those that were preferred by the Belgian colonial masters during the brutal rule of King Leopold II.
On the night of the fight, the Congolese chanted: “Ali, bumaye!”, meaning, “Ali, kill him!” Foreman must have been devastated being rejected by the crowds that were rooting for Ali. His psychological defeat was sealed.
DA member of parliament John Steenhuisen must have felt like Foreman on social media on Tuesday. Many users, especially black people, were celebrating President Cyril Ramaphosa’s rebuke of him. It felt like “bumaye!”
The president raised his voice and told Steenhuisen to “shut up”, all while not even looking at him. He was visibly irritated. Ramaphosa’s street cred went up a few notches at that very moment. Until then, his opponents in the ANC had been styling him an “Uncle Tom” - a black leader that is backed by, and afraid of, white monopoly capital.
Like Foreman, DA leaders often overlook the importance of optics, especially when their actions are likely to offend black people. Their style of parliamentary politics is based largely on the Westminster model, where heckling is commonplace. However, in the parliament of the United Kingdom, unlike in the South African one, it is mainly white people heckling other white people.
South Africa is a mainly black country, and the majority of its citizens have been brought up in traditional areas and townships.
The values of people in such communities are underpinned by the principles of Ubuntu and decorum. In community meetings, people disagree without being disagreeable. Heckling the head of state while he is respectfully answering questions goes against decorum. The tactic of heckling a president worked for the EFF and Julius Malema a few years back because they used it on a leader who they were accusing of being rogue; a man, who in the eyes of many South Africans, had earned the disrespect.
South Africa is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the word, which makes the business of politics quite complicated. Making matters worse is the fact that it is also the most unequal society in the world. Most DA MPs are white, middle class and have no concerns in traditional areas and townships. As a result, they are detached from the people they seek to represent, and they don't get to know what makes the elusive voters tick.
Most importantly, quite like Foreman, they have a superiority complex that makes them believe that black voters will be highly honoured for being invited to vote DA. Foreman believed that the fact that he was the champion, he was American but black like the Congolese, they would be so happy to breathe the same air as him, and they would go out to the stadium on the night of the fight and root for him. Black people in South Africa generally live with racism and the legacy of apartheid everywhere and every day.
They experience direct and confrontational racism, or they face sophisticated and subliminal racism. It depends on where they are in life. Opposition parties can hold the government to account in parliament without the heckling, and sometimes mindless interjections.
In fact, the more they ask tough questions and allow Ramaphosa to answer, the more effective they will be. When valuable time is wasted on objections and points of order, the voters are left less the wiser.
Undoubtedly, the DA wants to lead a coalition that would wrest power from the ANC. The only way for that to happen is for the party to win over a sizeable chunk of black voters. The ANC voter base is just over 60% of the electorate. The main opposition voter base, which has morphed from the erstwhile National Party to the DA over the years, is just over 20%.
The ANC got almost identical percentages in 1994 under Nelson Mandela and in 2014 for Jacob Zuma’s second term as president. The DA also got an almost identical percentage in 2014 as FW de Klerk’s NP in 1994. The DA has not been increasing support among blacks as much as it has been the beneficiary of the votes of the black people who don't feel an affinity to the ANC and other predominantly black parties.
The black vote has never been monolithic in South Africa since 1994. DA leader Mmusi Maimane was reportedly challenged by other party leaders for acknowledging at a public gathering that there existed the problems of white privilege and black poverty that needed to be confronted.
In his entire political career, this was Maimane's first statement that would fully resonate with most black people. The social media responses showed that the message had landed.
The hawks in the DA would have none of that. They would rather remind Maimane that their traditional voter base would not like Maimane's statement. EFF strategists must have high-fived each other at the sight of the double-edged sword the DA was impaling itself with.
On one side, the DA was killing Maimane's momentum, playing to the EFF's agenda as pretender to the DA's spot as the official opposition. On the other side, the conservatives in the DA leadership were confirming what the party is always accused of: defending white privilege and interests.
The chaotic handling of the Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille matter adds to the DA's problems. It doesn't help that De Lille is coloured and female. Her dismissal comes as the ANC is fielding its former provincial leader and premier Ebrahim Rasool to lead the election campaign and re-energise the coloured base.
If the DA took its black potential voters with as much deference as Ali did the Congolese well-wishers, they would spend more time where those voters are. That way they would know that the biggest turn-off about the DA is that it will not even acknowledge that white people are all under the marquee of privilege, no matter where they are - or where they started - in life.
The white cabal in the DA tends to undermine Maimane using surrogates embedded in the media. An example is the ridiculing of Maimane for allegedly calling himself a mini-Mandela. In truth, Maimane had stated that people call him a sell-out, a mini-Mandela. This against the backdrop of Mandela being labelled a sell-out for his role at the negotiations for a new South Africa.
That notwithstanding, Maimane is the closest the DA can get to having a consummate, fresh and dynamic black leader. He is young, which is an investment into the next coming years, as more youth reach voting age.
Black millennials do not feel indebted to liberation movements, and they don't care much for struggle credentials.
They don't know apartheid, but they do know poverty and inequality. Maimane often speaks to their issues and aspirations.
To the DA, Maimane is like a Lewis Hamilton who is driving a car that is good enough to win the race over time.
However, the good driver must take driving instructions from a bitter owner of the car who can't drive to save his own life. The DA has most probably peaked. It is ironic that the party may not grow bigger than its current size despite having had access to a lot of dynamic black, young talent.
The DA has become a graveyard for the careers of young black politicians who could be changing its fortunes. The likes of Steenhuisen are keeping black voters at bay.
* Nkosi is a public relations adviser specialising in strategies and insights.
The Sunday Independent