WE ARE now, more or less, between elections. The 2014 national and provincial elections saw the Democratic Alliance (DA) grow to 22.2%. While it did not win or bring the African National Congress (ANC) to below 50% in Gauteng, it made deep enough inroads to be looking to do so in at least one Gauteng metro and Nelson Mandela Bay in 2016; no doubt, elsewhere too.
But the DA has a big problem. The latter half of 2014 has seen it seriously depart from the brand it put so much time and effort into building in the preceding years. If it wants to grow in new markets, it needs to get back on the right track and that requires significant changes. In 2015 the DA is going to have to start afresh.
Understanding any political party’s brand requires the big picture. It is not something that changes overnight.
Rather, it is the consequence of the messages that a party drives, the manner in which it drives them and the attitudes and behaviour of those individuals who deliver those messages over time. How the public experiences this collectively and cumulatively is the party’s brand.
Say one type of thing in one way for long periods of time and the public will experience you one way. Deliver the converse, for a different experience.
The problem at the heart of the DA’s brand predicament is Parliament. National attention has been disproportionately focused on the institution during the chaos that has defined it this year. As a result, for six months since the election, the conduct of the DA in Parliament has gone some way towards realigning its external brand.
In the big-picture sense, you can really associate only two issues with the DA this year: Nkandla and, flowing from that, the independence of Parliament. Almost everything the party has done with a big impact revolves around these two core problems. Corruption and the ANC’s conduct, essentially.
As a result the DA’s brand has seriously regressed. Since the run-up to the 2011 local government elections the DA had poured a huge amount of time, money and political capital into repositioning itself as a party of government. It aimed to shift the perception it was just a critical opposition.
It promoted its own governance as an alternative, produced a new and supposedly all-defining jobs policy in response to the National Development Plan (NDP), and its leaders, elected to demonstrate to the public a more diverse organisation, drove these positive messages relentlessly. The DA minimalised its oppositional role to emphasise itself as a party of solutions designed to address the issues the public and potential new voters cared most about. It absolutely focused on delivering that brand in everything it did.
That all changed with the 2014 elections. Partly intimidated by the rhetorical spectacle of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), partly because oppositional- style leaders and novices now dominate it in equal measure, and partly because it lacks any coherent strategic guidance, the party slowly began to undo all this hard work.
The shift is epitomised by the DA’s Ayisafani television advert and a relentless emphasis on condemning and criticising President Jacob Zuma.
The DA of old is back. With new faces but a familiar tone it has effortlessly slipped back into the skin in which it feels most comfortable.
It has never gotten out of it. It is now fully ensconced in Fight Back mode to the extent that it literally gets into fights. What the public has experienced over the past six months is the DA of 1999.
It is important to understand that for the DA to redefine its brand as an alternative government, as opposed to a strident opposition party, does not mean negating its constitutional duties and ignoring the real problems of Nkandla and the ANC’s attitude to parliamentary independence. It is a matter of relative priorities. Only talking about or making a big public impact on oppositional issues narrows what the public hears and experiences.
Ideally they should run second to issues such as unemployment and the state of the economy, along with the policies and alternatives that define them, and be delivered with the same passion and moral outrage the DA so effortlessly generates when you say Nkandla.
To retain a brand as a party of government the DA needs to deliver the related messages, in volume, over time. As things stand, not only is there no counterbalance to its oppositional message, there is no countermessage at all. It is a bumper-to-bumper, one-way street.
Unemployment and the state of the economy are the definitive examples. They are the most critical issues to new voters and new markets for the DA.
Every bit of market research shows it. Yet its finance spokesman, indeed its entire economics cluster, is virtually nonexistent. It is simply not part of the national debate in any shape or form. It might as well be retired.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane said in naming his shadow cabinet this Parliament would be a “jobs Parliament”. It is the furthest thing from that. Maimane has failed fundamentally in his primary objective. The DA has not set its own agenda so much as react to the agenda of others — the EFF’s in particular.
As a result, and in a desperate attempt to rise above the EFF’s noise, it has resorted to the condemnation game: he who shouts loudest and most vociferously about how bad the ANC is, wins. And it has been giving it everything it has got. This is “big man” politics. And, with the EFF’s grandstanding egging it on, the party has positioned itself as an uber-mucho collection of egos ready for a fight and constantly itching to get stuck in and bash the enemy.
The chaos that is Parliament has caused the party to lose all perspective. The heat of the moment has become a six-month wildfire. Thus, the DA now embodies the very brand identity it rejected; sucked into a political paradigm not of its making. There is evidence of this everywhere, most prominently in the behaviour of its leaders.
The DA’s chief whip John Steenhuisen is a man not just of the Fight Back mould, but cast in Fight Back titanium. This is not his fault, he is being authentic, but there are consequences. His Twitter timeline is a stream of vitriol. And that abrasive attitude shows in the house. He demonstrates great skill in using and understanding the rules of engagement. You will never catch him out on that front. But he is unable to deliver a speech defined by care and compassion, policies, alternatives or positivity on the issues that most matter to potential voters. That sort of thing is not part of his political DNA.
His influence has rubbed off on Maimane, who in turn has become a raging torrent of anger. You almost feel him channelling EFF leader Julius Malema at times. Wrong-footed by the way the EFF stole the show he has tried to out-EFF the EFF. There is only one winner in that game. And it is not the DA.
Any caucus generally follows the cue of its leadership and so it is with the DA. “Bring it on,” some members tweeted when the ANC started to filibuster a week or two ago. And so the gateway into condemnation hell broke open and from it flowed a series of vicious and malicious motions, each one designed to denigrate and mock the ANC. This was a party no longer able to rise above its petty counterparts.
Never argue with an idiot, the saying goes, as they will bring you down to their level. In the game of idiotic motions, everyone is a loser. This scenario has played itself out in a hundred different ways over the past six months.
Presiding over all of this, somewhere in the background, was DA leader Helen Zille. She decided, at a time of multiple crises, to detach herself from national politics, to give space to the chosen few to make a name. No doubt her future played a part in that decision. But there is an upside and downside to this. Zille too is moulded in Fight Back titanium, but she is capable of sticking to the script, unlike her parliamentary counterparts.
Had the DA so decided, she could have used her not inconsiderable public weight to drive a series of alternative messages outside Parliament. But no one questions the leader in the DA or provides her with strategic advice with enough authority to alter her decisions. So she too looked on as the DA progressively regressed in Parliament. That is a failure of leadership.
The DA’s traditional support base will love all of this. Quite frankly, you cannot condemn Zuma loudly or vociferously enough for them. But that part of the DA’s market is more attached to the party than a limpet mine with superglue.
At times their support mirrors that of their counterparts in the ANC – almost unthinking in their blind loyalty. But there are no new votes in that market and they do not need to be convinced the ANC or Jacob Zuma is bad.
To grow the DA needs to capture new hearts and minds. Those people, black South Africans in particular, have been watching the DA bash the ANC for more than a decade and it has had little effect on attracting them.
They need something different. They want to know what the DA will do for them and the DA is simply not delivering. And, new markets aside, the party’s obsession with Zuma and Nkandla is generally to the detriment of its responsibility to speak about the multiple serious threats to the country’s stability playing themselves out. Even as an oppositional party, it is one-dimensional at best.
Worse still, it is actually driving people away. Not to the ANC, but through generating apathy. Voters, quite rightly, do not like mud fights. It is difficult to discern who is right and who is wrong and amid it all the natural response is: a pox on all their houses.
That applies just as much to the EFF as it does to the DA. Voters do not like politicians to spend their time denigrating each other. It shows only their self-concern.
One of the first and biggest jobs facing the party’s new CEO Paul Boughey, one of the custodians of the DA’s brand, will be to turn this mess around. Elections 2016 are not far away, and if the DA wants to make up all the lost ground it is going to have to refocus. Someone will have to tell the parliamentary leadership to reign in its egotistical impulse to out-EFF the EFF, to produce a new set of economy-focused policies that capture the public imagination (and that differentiates the party’s position from that of the NDP, which it has cornered itself on by mindlessly endorsing at every opportunity) and convincing Helen Zille to stop watching everything from a self-indulgent distance and get back onto the front pages, on the right issues.
If you zoom out the big picture lens even further, you will notice something remarkable about the DA. In the run-up to elections, through money and a giant communications machine, it presents itself as the party it knows it should be. But between elections it reverts to type. This is perhaps its biggest brand problem. It is not a party of government because its people are not of that ilk. They generally care little for policy. Certainly they have no authentic interest in the economy.
The DA’s authentic self is a party of opposition. But credit where credit is due, it can put on a good show when it has to. In 2015 it is going to have to roll out the rebranding machine one more time. Its authentic nature has once again gotten badly in the way of its pretend self.