ANC’s desperate election campaign behind the ‘Alex shutdown’
First published in Business Day
The ANC used to have a state-of-the-art campaign machine. It was professional, made sensible use of research and advertising, and carefully targeted its appeals to voters.
This week, however, the pressure began to tell. In two key provinces, Western Cape and Gauteng, the ANC has been wracked by tantalising hopes and terrible fears. These provinces represent the future of the country, with their young and growing populations and their vibrant economic activity.
As usual, the ANC’s campaign head, Fikile Mbalula, has rallied prominent celebrities. Actress and model Minnie Dlamini; rapper AKA; seductive lyricist Chomee; hunky actor Ntokozo Dlamini; and celebrity writer and philosopher Peter Bruce: all have rallied to the ANC’s cause.
The ANC’s internal polls, however, suggest the movement is still in danger. It has responded with an uncharacteristic throw of the dice: by instigating protests against the DA-led city governments in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Cape Town.
The “Alex shutdown”, launched more than a week ago, has involved an uneven and mostly unimpressive distribution of barricades, symbolic violence, and political verbiage.
At the centre of the “shutdown” has been a call for DA mayor Herman Mashaba to come to Alex and atone for his alleged sins. Given that there is obviously a plan to hound him out of the township — to “chase him away with his tail between his legs” — he has so far wisely declined the invitation.
On Tuesday, provincial premier David Makhura attended a meeting in Alex with “community leaders” (ANC cronies). He emerged to lambaste the mayor. Busloads of activists were meanwhile laid on in the township to celebrate Thursday’s programme of inauthentic community engagements with President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The Tshwane shutdown that began earlier this week, and the Khayelitsha shutdown that is currently underway, are likewise based on demands that DA mayors must “account to the community” for their misdemeanours.
Sentimental political activists will find it almost sweet that ANC leaders still think their party is a popular movement of the masses. Unfortunately for the ANC’s top leaders — who must have signed off on the shutdown — the whole fiasco has been marked by extraordinary incompetence. The ANC’s fingerprint on events has been so obvious that no citizen more sentient than a potato could view these protests as spontaneous or organic.
A large number of fake Twitter accounts were created to spread prepared messages about the Alex shutdown. Does the ANC not even have technologically competent people to cover its tracks? Why choose such implausible protest messages? Are “high water bills” really the key political issue in Khayelitsha?
The ANC and DA alike have been toying with “xenophobia” in recent weeks. This is the criminal targeting of poor black people from other countries — and often from the northern provinces of SA — for intimidation, extortion and violence. So concerned was the ANC that its popular rebellion would fail in Alex, that it mobilised xenophobia as the central issue in the shutdown. This is beyond pitiful.
The ANC also failed to anticipate voters’ backlash against being treated like imbeciles. Social media attention understandably turned to the disappearance of the R1.3bn dedicated to the Alex Renewal Project more than a decade ago.
The ANC hoped to exploit a general confusion with regard to the powers and responsibilities of cities, provinces, and national government departments. But most citizens know mayors do not exercise exclusive control over housing, education, and health programmes.
The shutdown nonsense has drawn attention to the failure of the ANC at national and provincial levels to support city projects in DA-run councils.
Worst of all, the liberation movement has been campaigning on the potential change promised by reputable leaders such as Ramaphosa and Makhura. They represent the “good ANC” that is supposedly going to rescue us from the “bad ANC” we have recently experienced.
But these squeaky clean politicians have now played leading roles in a poorly scripted campaign drama that has been based on lies, the terrorisation of foreigners, and the exploitation of the misconceptions of the poor.
This is not a good campaign strategy.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.