The politics of the message

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File picture: Kevin Sutherland/EPA

The election campaigning season has proven to be lacklustre at best and excruciatingly anaemic at worst. Twenty-five years into South Africa’s independence from the anti-human policies of the apartheid era, the political messaging in the 2019 poll is symptomatic of the absence of any inspirational “message” or grand narratives that can unify the society.

Politicians across the ideological spectrum are essentially going through well-rehearsed motions as though they were programmed automatons doomed to regurgitate worn-out scripts that are bereft of any inspirational visions of a more harmonious society to which we should all be excited to venture towards together.

The African National Congress (ANC) is depending on the mildly deceptive “New Dawn” narrative with the hope that the unthinking masses will be rendered comatose by a medium-term memory loss and forget the debilitating years of unbridled state capture, and the unmitigated fleecing of state-owned enterprises. As if on cue, load-shedding entered the electoral fray proudly proclaiming that it was “lights-out” for any hope of immediate dividends from the New Dawn. The hope of an era of “ethical leadership and behaviour” as was so proudly proclaimed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) was rapidly replaced with a sense of business as usual.

The rallying cry of “Thuma Mina” (“send me”) spiked an initial interest as even the entertainment industry made some effort to popularize the sentiment. If this political message had been followed through it could have laid the foundations for a subsequent unifying theme for entrenching a sense of service-to-others. However, the slogan was short-lived as the country became “Bosasa-ed” into submission as the testimony of Angelo Agrizzi, the former Chief Operating Officer, of the private company Bosasa, testified in front of the Judicial Commission of Enquiry into Allegations of State Capture, popularly known as the Zondo Commission, named after the intrepid and conscientious Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, Raymond Zondo.

The after-shocks of the Bosasafication of a key Department in the government, left South African society reeling from a body blow which in effect knocked down any hopeful aspirations for immediate relief from the scourge of the years of plunder which were taken to an entirely new level by the now infamous Zuma years. To be accurate state capture did not begin with Zuma in 2009, nor did it begin with the notorious arms deal, or even back to 1994 the year of our transition. State capture in South Africa has a long and treacherous history which dates back to the initial dispossession of the Khoi and San people of this land by the nefarious Dutch East India Company (VOC). 

The Dutch East India Company was a corporation before South Africa was a “state” in the traditional sense and in fact the VOC was instrumental in appointing the first “governors” of the colonised territories that subsequently became sovereign republic of South Africa. State capture is in the foundational DNA of the country and unless this ugly history is reckoned with investigated, understood and educated to those who prefer to sweep the past under the carpet, then South African society will not be able to deal with the “original sin” which continues to replicate the “Bosasa Effect” deep at the heart of the state. The opportunity to use this need to deal decisively with the past as a means to restructure the present and access a better future is missing from the  political messaging of the governing party.

The DA’s political messaging of being the “anti-ANC” pill has not sparked national consciousness to the frenzy that it could have if Zuma still occupied the Union Buildings. In fact the opposite effect seems to be unfolding, as initial predictive polls reveal that the party is loosing ground in its Western Cape strong-hold. A disaggregation of the reasons for this apparent DA-dip will not be available until after the elections. It will be interesting to see whether Patricia De Lille, an erstwhile DA heavy-weight-turned-nemesis will electoral make in-roads, with her political message of being the “Good” Party and reassuring Capetonians and the Western Province that “Aunty Pat” will go and sort out the miscreants in parliament. Certainly, the jocular election poster of De Lille, depicting a spirited Aunty with a can-do-attitude, has got some in the Cape wondering “maybe I should vote for the Good Party?”

The EFF’s political messaging and rhetoric on the issue of land, has shifted the national narrative and also compelled the ANC to “re-adopt” the expropriation mantra as having been part and parcel of its its own policy all along. The Gini co-efficient which measures the gap between the haves and the have-nots, reveals that the gap in South Africa has widen precipitously fuelled significantly by the failures of state capture. Consequently, there are regrettably more people now living in the margins of society than those living in the mainstream. The EFF’s messaging resonates with this constituency of the descendants of the historically dispossessed, as well as those living on the margins of society, and will undoubtedly contribute towards increasing its parliamentary tally, if the electoral swing witnessed in the municipal elections is replicated.  However, the long march to a full-blown revolution has been muted by the internal issues relating to the alleged financial irregularities which does not translate into a “good” message for a revolutionary party of the masses.

There other political formations that have sought to capture the imagination of South African society, but in doing so some have crossed the line of decency and descended straight into the abyss. For example, the African Transformation Movement (ATM) which proclaims to be the party of redemption and integrity, but in fact sends out a subliminal message that like the electronic banking Automatic Teller Machine (ATM), its intention is to cut out the “middle-man” completely and allow customers (or is that voters) to access funds directly so long as they have the correct party card. This would take the Bosasafication of South Africa to a whole new level and herald the end of any pretext of democracy, as we think we know it, and usher in an era of the private corporate take-over of society. 

This slippery slope which South Africa is currently on would replicate the “original sin” rather than address its effects. Political messaging should not be deployed so deceptively to deflect on the shortcomings of those who seek to represent the people. Political messaging can be effectively deployed to place the country on a new set of tracks towards a future of political integrity based on a committed responsiveness and a willingness to work through the difficult challenges in order to address the genuine needs of the broad spectrum of the people of South Africa.

Professor Tim Murithi is Head of the Peacebuilding Interventions Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), Cape Town, and author of The Ethics of Peacebuilding, @tmurithi12.