Face of a party is key to its identity
Johannesburg - Winston Churchill once said “politics are as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous”. In politics, says Thomas Sweitzer, a US political media adviser, “all the planning and strategy collide at a single place and time. In war, the battlefield is Waterloo or Gettysburg. In politics, the battlefield is the voter’s mind.”
That’s precisely where the battle is being waged this month as the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai attempts to wrest power from Zanu-PF’s Robert Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
At the same time, in Guinea Bissau parties are battling it out to replace ousted interim President Raimundo Pereira; and in South Africa, Helen Zille of the DA has been waging a vociferous battle against President Jacob Zuma and the ANC in the lead-up to next year’s elections.
The parties and the personalities will be relying not just on delivering compelling messages that resonate with the electorate, but on the ability of the messengers – the flag-bearers – to be attractive to voters.
All political campaigns are generally built on three key platforms – leveraging the candidate’s personal strengths, ideological or partisan differences, and the situational context.
The right approach led an ambitious young Illinois congressman, Barack Obama, to the White House ahead of the establishment’s Hillary Clinton, with a “change” message; and put Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street with a bold, anti-establishment, partisan platform: “Labour isn’t working”.
In Ghana, a charismatic and youthful John Mahatma won after only three months of campaigning (the incumbent and flag-bearer, Atta Mills, died unexpectedly) with an adjusted status quo message that played to his ambition and youth: “Better Ghana – Working for You”.
Campaigning in Africa can be seen in three distinct phases – pre-independence, independence and post-independence. In each of them there were always two archetypes of political leadership and campaigning.
In the pre-independence phase, the ruling minority parties were typically conservative colonial patriarchs who preyed on minority subjects’ fears of the black majority chasing them into the sea.
On the other hand, the majority, black, oppressed challengers were led by charismatic and selfless heroes who were ready to sacrifice their lives for the masses – the likes of Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Egypt’s Colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasir and Guinea’s Sekou Toure. Post-independence, particularly in South Africa, the roles of the liberator and the oppressor have been reversed to an extent. The liberator is now the custodian patriarch and the minority is led by charismatic liberators such as the AWB’s late Eugene Terre’blanche.
Zille, a renowned anti-apartheid activist in her own right, is fashioning herself as the new non-racial benevolent unifier, while the ANC champions itself as the custodian of freedom and repositions the DA as a colonial descendant threatening to return South Africa to the dark age of apartheid.
In the rest of the continent, with a growing youthful leadership such as Senegal’s Maki Sal, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Ghana’s Mahatma, the battle can be seen as a challenge between the new (often youthful) charismatic liberators and the old patriarchal colonial apologists.
While many arrive with ambitious and sometimes politically naive agendas, such as Obama’s change message, they often run into the establishment – the party – scuppering their transformational agendas and bold ambitions. As a result, there’s a need for constant balancing between the party and the personality.
African politics, traditionally dominated by the “people’s parties”, is increasingly becoming dominated by “personality parties”, with idealised and idolised leaders who have deliberately crafted public images.
The party is used as a mobilising infrastructure, while the hero – the candidate – is the champion playing to the gallery.
As well articulated in the BBC’s The African Story, while the cult of personality grew in response to a need to bring people together through oratory and image, the African politician has become a symbolic heroic personality. Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast was known as The Ram who defends his People; Kenyatta as the Flaming Spear of Kenya; Nyerere as Mwalimu (teacher); and Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda combined a severe European look of trilby and three-piece suit with an extraordinary capacity to play to the crowd.
The reach and appeal of many – such as Kaunda, Nkrumah, Sekou Toure and now Mandela – go beyond their own country, championing a pan-African agenda and unity.
As Chido Makunike noted in the Zimbabwe Standard, in the absence of the Western world’s hero-worshipped film and music stars, in Africa religious leaders and politicians are the heroes who have amassed enormous wealth (and power) from the throne.
In many countries, challenging the hero-leader often has detrimental repercussions. Adoring songs are written and presidential portraits are hung in the offices of those who seek political favours. Others “join” so they are not seen as being disloyal – or worse, sympathetic to the opposition – counter-revolutionaries.
The leader is the “supreme” commander of all institutions and opportunities.
Others, like Mandela and many of his peers, such as Mozambique’s Joachim Chissano, Botswana’s Festus Mogae and Cape Verde’s Pedro Pires, recent winner of the Mo Ibrahim award for promoting development, peace and democracy, have grown to be widely regarded as statesmen rather than politicians.
Politicians, says Clinton, think about the next election, while statesmen think about the next generation.
Next year’s elections will bring together the formidable campaigning skills of Zille and Zuma, and the newcomers – the wounded and charismatic Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters, and academic Mamphela Ramphele of Agang. Joining the fray will be the stalwart authoritarian, the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the combative leader of Cope, Mosiuoa Lekota, and the civil Kenneth Meshoe of the African Christian Democratic Party. All will claim to have an agenda to sustain and build on South Africa’s democratic gains and improve people’s lives.
The battle will be party as well as personality driven – and the implicit or explicit engine will be marketing and branding. It’s not unforeseeable that more than R1 billion will be spent on campaigning. In the lead-up, any competitive action is electioneering.
It is therefore not surprising that the ANC reacted animatedly when the DA used “their” Mandela with “their” Helen Suzman in a topical “Know Your DA” campaign that sought to position the DA as central to the struggle for South Africa’s independence.
To the ANC, Mandela is their brand – their liberation hero. To the DA, Mandela embodies the unifying values that the DA propagates as ideal for the sustainability of South Africa.
Zille will be hoping that her toyi-toying will be more convincing than Zuma’s Awulethe umshini wami (bring me my machine gun) to voters.
Both will be betting that the appeal of the youthful and wounded pre-eminent personality of post-independence South Africa, Malema, to the 58 percent of South Africans under the age of 34, won’t produce an unpleasant electoral surprise.
* Thebe Ikalafeng is a global African political branding adviser and author who successfully led the 2008 and 2012 Ghana elections.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.