Analysis: As it launches its Manifesto, DA hopes blue is the new black

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On Sunday Polokwane turned blue for the DA Manifesto day. Thousands of DA supporters filled the Polokwane Showgrounds to watch the party’s leadership put on a rousing display of political theatre. The crowd’s T-shirts were a sea of blue. Blue confetti showered down from the heavens. The sky, as Helen Zille pointed out, was playing along, providing an azure umbrella to proceedings. The blue was one of the only aesthetic giveaways that this was not, in fact, an ANC rally. It was the DA’s opportunity to display their new image to a national TV audience, and they seized it with both hands.

If there was one thing that seemed to be missing from the DA’s manifesto launch, it was a certain energy from the crowd. But the DA’s top brass had brought their own energy in spades, singing, dancing and exhorting their audience to take a chance on an opposition party desperate to cast off its old white image. The only white face given a platform during the two hours in which the launch was broadcast live was Helen Zille’s. In all other respects, the rally looked like it could have been that of virtually any post-independence African political party – or, at least, any party with pockets deep enough to afford a confetti machine.

The audience appeared to be almost uniformly black, begging the question of what Polokwane’s staunch white DA supporters were spending their Sunday afternoon doing instead. (Watching the cricket, a Twitter user suggested.) Not that their absence would have been lamented. The rally was broadcast live on three national TV channels: a huge PR chance for the DA to demonstrate once and for all that the party associated with old white men has thoroughly changed its look.

It was fitting that local act Freshlyground kicked off proceedings. In some ways they are the quintessential DA band: young, multi-racial, multi-lingual, and capable of sending white consumers to the shop to buy a CD featuring at least one song in Xhosa. The singing didn’t end when the band exited. Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille all had a bash at leading the crowd in song, though Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille spared them any rapping.

One of the first leaders on stage was DA deputy chairperson Makashule Gana. Gana is an interesting case – one of the only young black leaders in the party who sounds like he is an ANC politician rather than a DA politician, in terms of his accent. In Eusebius McKaiser’s recently-published Could I Vote DA?, McKaiser devotes a thought-provoking chapter to Gana, who grew up rural and poor. It’s McKaiser’s suggestion that Gana’s failure to adequately master the “grammar of whiteness” in the same way as Mazibuko and Maimane has partially constrained his progress through the party structures.

To draw attention to Gana’s accent may seem petty, or even racist. But how politicians speak is deeply important. Someone who knows this well is former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose accent noticeably shifted during his time in office, adopting characteristics associated with less elite forms. To seem more like a man of the people, Blair knew he had to speak like one of “the people”. It’s possible that Mmusi Maimane has also absorbed this lesson: there has been some discussion on social media recently about the fact that in Maimane’s public addresses, he is perceived to sound increasingly less “model C”, to use an old term.

Despite McKaiser’s analysis, then, Gana’s accent should theoretically be an asset to the DA in expanding their voter base. The problem is that Gana just isn’t a very good public speaker, seeming awkward and unconfident on stage, with little of Maimane’s easy charm. Gana was particularly outshone by youth leader Mbali Ntuli, who despite her age appeared utterly undaunted by the occasion. Ntuli – who sports pink, partially-shaved hair, and concluded her address by urging the crowd to “rock this election” – is the kind of face the DA will want to be putting forward prominently as exemplifying the party’s re-positioning.

Recent polling from Ipsos of the supporters of the three biggest political parties in South Africa suggests that only 32% of DA supporters speak English at home. Fully 50% speak Afrikaans as a first language, according to the Ipsos data, which may explain why the DA’s Anchen Dreyer delivered her SONA response in Parliament last week in Afrikaans. The same data puts the figures of Xhosa and Zulu-speaking DA supporters at 3% each. The party is clearly attempting to expand this - all the DA leaders on stage in Polokwane code-switched continuously, including Zille. It’s canny politicking: another linguistic means of signaling their identity shift.

The launch was a typical DA production – slickly stage-managed. Zille, whose entrance was announced as if she’d just won Idols, took to the stage as blue confetti rained down. One almost expected her to crowd-surf. “The whole world is blue today in Polokwane!” Zille cried gleefully. The DA is riding the blue metaphor hard at the moment; Maimane also waxed lyrical about the “blue wave sweeping across our country”. There’s not much consistency about what blue means in political colour terms: it’s the colour of England’s Conservative Party, but also the (nominally) left-leaning Democratic Party in the States. African flags, with some exceptions, tend to favour ANC colours.

The DA has been blue since its rebranding in 2008, from blue and yellow. A former staffer explained to the Daily Maverick that the party wanted to “own” one colour rather than two, and the feeling was that the ANC already “owned” yellow. Asked on Twitter why the party chose blue, Zille replied: “The answer is differentiation” [from the ANC].

You need more than colour to differentiate yourself from another party, and historically the ANC and DA have held pretty similar policy positions on some of the major issues. But the good thing about being in opposition, of course, is that you get to promise a lot. Zille promised 8% economic growth, 6 million jobs, and a drop in unemployment to 11%. Heady stuff – particularly the economic growth – but in fact quite conservative compared to the promises made by EFF leader Julius Malema the very same weekend. Malema cannily went so far as to promise specific wage increases to various low-paying professions; in his vision, all mineworkers will take home R12,500.

Pie in the sky though Malema’s claims may be, it’s not hard to see why they might appeal to a population of frustrated, underpaid workers and the terminally unemployed. In competition with this, the DA might find that they have under-promised.

The choice of Polokwane as the venue for the manifesto launch was not incidental. It sends a powerful message for the DA to be able to fill a stadium with mainly black supporters in a province far removed from their traditional power bases of the Western Cape and Gauteng. Then there’s the role played by Polokwane in the ANC’s history: the site where Jacob Zuma was made king in 2007. Much of the DA’s election campaigning is built around attacks on Zuma, and hosting the launch in Polokwane allowed DA leaders to remind viewers where it all – in the DA’s view – went wrong.

“Right here in Polokwane the tide turned,” Zille told the crowd. “That was the moment when a great political movement lost its sense of direction.” The DA will be hoping that this time around, the tide turned in Polokwane once again. 

By Rebecca Davis

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo: The DA leader Hellen Zille in a photo grab from Sunday's Polokwane rally. (SABC)