Monday, 14 April 2014

On the campaign trail - voting for change

This past ten days has seen a burst of political activity and campaigning in the two constituencies I am focusing on - Sandton and Soweto. We had Mbali Ntuli, DA Youth Leader, coming to Dube to promote the DA's policies for small business, covered in my latest post which got an airing on Politicsweb last week. Since then the action has concentrated on mass mobilisation around the SABC's banning of the DA's latest TV commercial, scenarios for coalition politics and support for our title deeds campaign message coming from a surprising source. All of this points to the political ground shifting beneath us at a dizzying rate. The parties still standing upright on May 7th will be those with the most nimble feet and the agility to set the political agenda.

Last Saturday a few of us set up a table in Rosebank handing out leaflets and taking names and details of people who wanted to join the party or at least get on our mailing list. What was encouraging was the interest shown by township residents - namely Alexandra and Tembisa - who were willing to sign up and share their views on the current state of the ANC. Virtually everyone we spoke to were former ANC supporters who regard the DA as the only viable alternative, and see through the populism and economic illiteracy of the EFF. Nkandla came up nearly every time, with e-tolls and corruption a close second. These people are not just fed up, they want to do something constructive by voting for change rather than sitting back.

On Thursday we had a dry-run of the rally planned for Saturday, with Helen and Mmusi making an appearance next to the Pace Commercial High School in Zola, Soweto, for a short door-to-door walkabout and some speeches. Standing on the back of a bakkie addressing a crowd of around 100, Helen clutched a bouquet of microphones while Mmusi held a loud hailer up to her mouth which she abandoned after a few seconds, preferring to speak unaided. She is making a point at all joint appearances of giving Mmusi prominence, and he did not disappoint, his style of speech-making becoming more confident by the day.

Earlier I got chatting to one of Mmusi's campaign team members about the latest polls for Gauteng, which put the ANC comfortably below 50%, the DA the second biggest party and the EFF trailing in third place. This raises the prospect of a coalition for the province, unless the ANC tries to run a minority government which I think they would find very difficult. How should we in the DA approach this?

David Cameron prepared the ground for talks with the LibDems after the 2010 election in which the Tories were the largest party but did not command a majority. He set up a small team, in secret, which set out the ground rules for a coalition and was able to secure sufficient policy alignment to allow him to make the famous speech outside 10 Downing Street where he said he had made Nick Clegg a "big open and comprehensive offer". This wrong-footed the Labour party and led directly to the coalition being formed.

To further quote Cameron's statement "I want to make a big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats. I want us to work together in tackling our country's big and urgent problems - the debt crisis, our deep social problems and our broken political system," he said.

Does this hold any lessons for the DA should the ANC lose Gauteng? I believe it does. We should take the initiative and state our intention of having an open and constructive conversation with the ANC and the EFF and the other minority parties about a possible coalition. The DA's election message is "Vote for Change, Vote for Jobs". If the ANC goes below 50%, the voters are clearly voting for change. The problem is, the DA and EFF's policies are diametrically opposite to one another's, making a coalition with them highly problematic. As for the ANC, it has an almost visceral hatred of the DA so finding common ground would be fraught with difficulties.

Is it possible to reconcile these differences or would a coalition with the ANC or the EFF be a recipe for disaster? I bent Mmusi's ear for a few minutes on the subject and the issue was clearly on his mind - he does, after all, stand to be the Premier in a coalition with the EFF and minority parties.

In my view the way to do this is to clearly set out the markers in any coalition, the non-negotiables, which would have to form the core of a policy detente between the parties. Bear in mind that provincial government has little or no power over the macro economy where the EFF's policies are so dangerous (for example strict exchange controls, abandoning fiscal rectitude in favour of massively increased public spending). It could not nationalise the banks or the mines or forcibly appropriate land - these are the purviews of national government. Provincial government is mainly concerned with health, education, housing, infrastructure and social development - implementing government policies using transfers from the national treasury. It has very little power to raise any money of its own. It cannot impose taxes. Through the department of economic development it funds investment in small business, tourism and promoting the province as South Africa's economic hub, but it can't fundamentally change the dynamics of the economy.

If we have the stomach for a coalition, one option is to challenge the ANC with the question immediately it becomes clear we have a hung province - partner with the DA for good governance, accountability and service delivery, or with the EFF for empty promises, endless factionalism and further deterioration in services? It would put the ANC on the spot, set the agenda for a coalition and put us on the moral high ground. It could be the same question the ANC faces in 2019 at the national level and will determine whether South Africa swims or drowns.

I am convinced most South Africans are eager for change. A friend of mine summed this up in an email he sent me today - It would also seem time for the opposition to work together on a common theme - "The only way to get real change is to send the ANC a message - Vote NO if you must, but better vote for any of the main opposition parties - vote for the one you like the best - and then - Change is Possible!" 

The big event for me in the political week was on Saturday, with around 3 000 of our supporters and activists marching through Zola with placards and banners plastered with the slogan  Ayisafani! This means "things aren't the same anymore" and drew attention to the SABC's banning of the DA's latest TV commercial of the same name on the spurious grounds it incites violence. As Helen Zille points out in her latest newsletter SA Today, it's a sign of panic in the ANC that its cypher the SABC should feel it necessary to resort to such gutter tactics in its attempt to stem the flow of voters to the DA.

During the speeches I took some time out to chat to a few of my future colleagues in Parliament. One of the topics was the MPs' pension scheme, which has drawn some flak recently for being too generous and another example of our legislators dishing out lavish perks to themselves at taxpayers expense. Currently an MP can retire with a pension of 92.5% of pensionable salary after 15 years (three terms) service, mainly because the pension money has been so well invested it is delivering superior returns. The system was designed to help MPs who entered Parliament in 1994 when the average age was much higher than today and retirement came sooner. This might change though, as more MPs are entering Parliament at a younger age so have longer to build up their pension pots.

Something else that is focusing the mind of the new crop of MPs and MPLs is the method of allocating constituencies. Once we know how many elected representatives we have in Gauteng the party divides up the province and each representative becomes the political head of an area, what we call a constituency. Do we send more reps to areas of current electoral strength (the suburbs) or do we take the long view and target the townships where we need to build our votes up for future elections? I am one of a handful of likely new MPs who are not already public reps (others include Glynnis Breytenbach, the former state prosecutor; Belinda van Onselen, the Wits academic and mother to former DA staffer and political commentator Gareth van Onselen; and Heinrich Volmink, a medical doctor) so are comparatively wet behind the ears. Do we get our own seats, or are we mentored with more experienced MPs for a while after the election? I made the point to a senior member of the party that the deciding factor should be effectiveness on the ground and he agreed.

The week rounded off with an upbeat event in Alexandra yesterday. It was billed as an occasion to meet Mmusi Maimane, and that it certainly became as we gathered outside the women's hostel in 4th Avenue. A good crowd of about 150 activists toyi toyied and sang, before Ian Ollis - the constituency MP (this part of Alex is in Sandton, the other part in Houghton run by Mike Moriaty) introduced Mmusi who spoke for a few minutes then handed over to a Mr Ngwenya from the Phomolong Tenants Forum. They had picked up on Mmusi's title deeds election message which resonated with their members, who mainly occupy back yards in townships and have no title to their properties. Many earn more than the R3 500 cutoff for an RDP house but not enough to get a home loan. Ngwenya believes the DA is on the right  track in pushing for title deeds however small or humble the property they occupy might be.

Afterwards we walked through Alex handing out the new DA leaflet which has caused consternation among some activists, because of its heavy hitting anti-ANC and EFF message. What if the EFF retaliates and threatens our activists, they asked? This came up at our Sandton constituency meeting on Thursday and was met with the elegant suggestion that we hand it out with the leaflet summarising our positive manifesto message, so countering the negative spin which is part of the "squeeze" strategy adopted in the last couple of weeks of the campaign.

There is a debate in the party (in fact in all parties in every country) about the comparative success of negative and positive campaigning. Our Fight Back campaign in 1999 arguably increased our vote by 450%, but is this the right strategy today? Do our target - black - voters want the ANC and EFF to be bashed over the head, or would they rather be swooned by sensible and positive emphasis on DA policies? I must say I prefer the positive approach, as I think this is more likely to sway new voters to our cause than a negative approach will frighten them into our corner.

Meanwhile, this morning's news followed on the story splashed in the Sunday papers - Ronnie Kasrils has really shaken things up with his Vote No campaign to be launched tomorrow. Let's see what impact it has on the waverers in the ANC. This is negative campaigning with a different slant and poor Ronnie is now branded a traitor. He, like the DA, wants change. He just can't bring himself to acknowledge real change can only come with a DA government.

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