A tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the DA was in desperate need of a branding overhaul was met with a broad spectrum of responses — from “DA who?” to indignant rebuttals from DA activists.
The reality of the situation is that that the official opposition is severely stigmatised. Negative emotions towards the party — from mistrust to hatred — is entrenched. There is the widespread perception that it is a minority party with minority interests. Many genuinely believe that it is a bunch of racist white reactionaries hankering after a privileged past.
There are two reasons (in my view) why these unfair misconceptions persist.
1. The ANC’s vilification
The ANC, that paranoid party which tried to topple Cape Town’s DA-led government almost a dozen times (and couldn’t), has led a sustained demonisation of liberalism. There are those in the ANC who believe in the movement’s perpetual right to rule.
If one reads the back issues ANC Today, it is only too clear that the party believes that to be held accountable by an opposition party is a threat that needs the harshest censure. To be blunt: the ANC will do what it takes to remain in power until — as Zuma says – “Jesus comes”.
2. A hostile media
Yes, it is a rather sweeping statement, but most of the media is openly hostile to the DA. The press goes to great lengths to portray the Democratic Alliance as unequivocally antigovernment and anti-ANC just for the sake of being the official opposition. The constructive role the party often plays in the legislative process (such as in ensuring the promulgation of the Civil Union Bill met its deadline) is invariably underreported.
Independent Newspapers leads the pack. But then with ANC acolytes jetted to Tony O’ Reilly’s (Independent’s Irish Lord and master) castle for fireside chats that’s hardly surprising. Slagging Zille and her party has a clear motive — to earn kudos from the ANC and ensure the survival of their rash of news outlets. One can’t do without those “Happy Hanukkah!” adverts from the premier’s office on page three, after all.
That the SABC is an ANC mouthpiece doesn’t help matters either. There have been documented accounts of bias, especially in the propaganda machine’s Cape newsroom where reporters have been actively pressured to report on DA and the coalition running the City of Cape Town in a negative light.
The poisonous fruits of Bantu education and a post-apartheid education system which is little better (and in some cases tragically worse) have meant that we have a populace largely ill-equipped to make empowered decisions about their political future. The enslavement of ignorance that apartheid did its best to achieve has not been dismantled by the current government.
Awareness of our constitution and of our democratic processes remains painfully low. And our democracy is paying the price for that. There is rising anger — and enormous dissatisfaction — with government’s performance. For many of the poor, trust and optimism placed in empty election manifesto promises has unravelled to disillusion and bitterness. Yet the ANC still wins enormous majorities at each election. Why? Partly because of the movement’s romantic associations with the struggle, but mainly because masses of people believe there is no alternative. They believe there is no other political party that can represent them and fulfil their dreams of true liberation.
Anger is therefore vented not at the ballot box but on the street — in violent protests and the murder of ANC councillors. This needs to be changed.
To stave off extinction and irrelevancy, the DA needs to reach out to the impoverished, capturing hearts and minds and positioning themselves as a viable alternative to the ANC. It needs to destigmatise its brand and become a visible, vibrant political entity in the townships and rural heartlands.
It is not going to be easy for the DA to counteract the negative perceptions held about it. Strategies far more complex than the ones I half-jokingly suggested last week should be developed as a matter of urgency — especially with the 2009 election looming.
Of course, the first step in the right direction is to accept that such perceptions exist.