EFF leader Julius Malema addresses supporters at Mehlareng Stadium in Tembisa during the manifesto launch. Malema is using peoples disillusionment with the ruling party to make inroads into its support, says the writer. Picture: Nicholas Tau

Jacob Zuma used it to oust Mbeki and now Malema is using it against Zuma, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Visuals are invaluable in politics. They create “reality”. Control over what people see and hear in the media helps shape their views. People form perceptions based on what they know. Control of information is key to shaping popular perceptions.

That is why control over media outlets is highly contested. Whoever controls the dominant media has a greater chance of shaping popular perceptions.

This explains the constant bickering over management and content at the public broadcaster.

You may think back to early 2008 how bitterly the newly elected ANC leadership protested against Thabo Mbeki appointing a new board at the SABC.

Mbeki had just lost the ANC presidency to Jacob Zuma, but was still president of the republic. They feared Mbeki would use the public broadcaster, through the appointment of sympathisers, to fight back.

And images of the newly formed Cope gave the Polokwane victors even more cause for concern. News broadcasts were filled with reports about senior ANC leaders possibly defecting to Cope.

They built a narrative of a strong, surging splinter movement, while the ruling party seemed in disarray.

The ANC had no counter-narrative to the excitement generated by Cope. And journalists insisted Cope was news. It was the first splinter group since 1994.

Unable to generate interesting news of their own, Luthuli House used its incumbency to muscle Cope out of news circulation.

They argued that since Cope didn’t have proven popular support, there was no way of verifying that it was a popular news story. Luthuli House insisted rather that only parties with parliamentary representation, which indicated their popularity, should receive coverage.

That was a fanciful argument. Luthuli House knew that too. But it was an excuse to limit coverage of Cope. And Cope was pretty much cut out of SABC coverage thereafter. Where Cope was shown on TV, it was in an unflattering manner.

One particular evening news broadcast stands out in my mind: It showed Kgalema Motlanthe, who was then president of the republic, walking through Khayelitsha swamped by huge crowds; then it quickly moved to a Cope event in Benoni somewhere showing Mvume Dandala addressing a few khaki-clad white folk. The activity was billed as a fund-raising event.

The message was unmistakable: The ANC remains popular, while Cope is hassling for survival.

Just when you thought the ruling party couldn’t do any better, it pulled off a master-stroke.

The Siyanqoba Rally was a spectacular propaganda exercise.

Dressed in their traditional yellow T-shirts, ANC members filled two adjacent stadiums: Joburg and Ellis Park. The SABC, of course, showed the whole show. Visuals shifted from one stadium to another.

And the saintly Mandela was there demonstrating his continuing trust in the ANC. Watching from home, a viewer was left with just one impression: The ANC rules!

A genius at manipulating public imagery, the ANC would certainly have been worried by the events of the past weekend.

It was completely outclassed by Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Malema won the publicity contest. I’ve never seen so many black people on TV at any rally other than the ANC’s.

We’ve come to associate such massive crowds with ANC rallies. It was not so last Saturday. The EFF crowd was more like the ANC, and the ANC was reduced to looking like the United Democratic Movement.

A new narrative has consequently emerged. It is no longer doubtful if the EFF commands popular support. Whereas they had initially predicted about 10 percent electoral support, now pollsters are no longer dismissive of the EFF’s claims that it will get about 20 percent.

This estimate may well be too optimistic. But the impressive showing at the rally in Tembisa makes it believable.

That is the value of visuals.

They prepare the ground for propaganda. The massive crowd may have persuaded those who had given the EFF a thought, but doubted their resonance. “I’m not the only one, the EFF is popular after all,” doubters may now conclude.

Conversely, the relatively poor showing at the ANC rally is indicative of the party’s current dilemma.

It lacks a catchy narrative for this election.

Incumbency still works in its favour. This time around, however, incumbency is only sufficient for defence – to limit the loss.

The ANC is under siege and has been for the most part of this term.

And it will go into the elections in a defensive mode.

Nkandla is just bad news. Scheduled for release on March 1, barring any litigation, the Nkandla report is likely to remain in the news for about a month, if not more.

Opposition parties will make sure voters don’t forget Nkandla.

Lindiwe Mazibuko has already threatened to call for the impeachment of the president.

No president wants to be arguing why he shouldn’t be fired on the eve of an election. This will focus public attention on Zuma’s flaws, instead of the ANC’s successes.

Against the EFF, however, there’s little the ANC can do to dilute their appeal. Incumbency, in this case, weighs heavily against the ruling party. The EFF is a populist party.

Populism is anti-establishment. It feeds off a grievance.

The ANC is the establishment and thus a source of grievance. EFF followers are the disgruntled, unemployed masses who feel left out of the system. And inequality is a reminder of their exclusion.

We’re in, and they’re out. Exclusion makes radicalism appealing.

Poor and unemployed people don’t crack their heads wondering how Malema is going to pay for all the things he has promised them.

That’s the least of their concerns. They just want them. Whether or not you think they’re stupid is immaterial to them.

In Malema they’ve found a representative who promises to look after their interests. That’s all that matters. And this makes them no different to anyone who votes for a party that promises to meet her needs.

Populism, however, is not the preserve of the illiterate, poor masses. The elite too dabble in populism. It’s mostly those who have lost out in faction fights. They then resort to populism to catapult them back into political prominence. Zuma did that when Mbeki fired him.

His was an anti-establishment, populist campaign.

His key backers were individuals who had been overlooked by Mbeki for appointments and did not get tenders. And Zuma had financial backers who bank-rolled his political campaign.

The wheel has turned. Erstwhile populists have become the establishment. And some have become quite rich from tenders.

Having risen as a populist himself, Malema too was once incomprehensibly rich, without ever holding down a job and before he even turned 30.

After losing out in faction fights, Malema has rediscovered populism.

And there seems to be a financier around, bankrolling the campaign.

Poor, unemployed people don’t have the money to fund all the EFF’s activities.

Neither Malema nor Zuma before him manufactured populism.

Populist sentiment was already present within our society, laying dormant and only waiting for wily politicians to bring it to life.

Its source is our massive poverty and inequality. Jailing Malema will not eliminate populism.

It will only validate populist claims of the injustice of the establishment. And another populist could well rise in Malema’s stead.

Populism is part of who we are.

Only structural economic changes can eliminate it.

For now, populism is here to stay.

* Mcebisi Ndletyana heads the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent