Category Archives: south african elections 2009

The messy business of COPE

How is it possible that a party that started with such fanfare and had such imagination can appear to be self-destructing before our very eyes? I am talking about the Congress of the People (COPE), of course.

Many will remember the excitement it created in promising the birth of an opposition that we could respect. There are millions in South Africa who will never vote for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in their lifetime because we remember too much, are too suspicious of the people in charge of that party and have no respect for many of the DA’s policies. It brought suprise, intrigue and really articulated some of the frustrations felt by previously loyal ANC voters.

Although people have much historic respect for the Independent Democrats (ID) leader, Patricia de Lille, we can’t quite figure out who the other people in that party are. So, it seems we’re not likely to have ID as a real, large opposition either.

Of course, if the Pan Africanists in the various parties that now exist were a little more organised, or AZAPO more visibly convincing, there might be hope there too.

But there has been no such hope. This is why COPE offered an interesting turn in recent SA politics. It was not just the fact that many of the founders came from the same liberation struggle background, it was also that this party offered something new to South African politics.

Even if your loyalty to the ANC was unshaken, you could not really dismiss COPE as insignificant. The ANC electoral campaign clearly took COPE seriously in the run up to the 2009 elections. The amount of energy and attention that the ANC paid to COPE showed, even if just metaphorically, that this was a formation that mattered. Think about how little attention the ANC pays to other small parties – even when these are more established. Now compare this to how much ink was dedicated to the ‘divorce papers’ by Lekota, the speculation on Shilowa, the violent utterings by various ANC leaders as they spoke about their previous comrades who has crossed over, the controversies about who else was organising/raising money for COPE, how hard the ANC fought to prevent COPE from having a name of any sort with leftist associations, etc.

But COPE seems hell bent on showing South Africans that the grand promise was all just an act. How else do you account for the repeated bizzare incidents in the public – from the delayed election presence (which they eventually fixed and spectacularly so), to the endless media mess on whether there should be a Congress or not? Bitter in-fighting does not inspire confidence.

Many people voted for COPE, and as with any other political party, the vast majority of these people are not card carrying members – and will never be. If COPE does not stop irritating and embarassing the people who voted for it in such numbers, they can pack up and go home. The best thing they can do now is to surprise their audiences, and pleasantly so, by staying clear of things that will lose them further confidence. They need to remain an alternative for future elections. This will not be the case if we see more priests (bishops)/uniformed men as compromise candidates, more machismo between the two top leaders, there is more talk of a split, or other boring events typical of mundane politricking.

Come on, people living in South Africa may have very high appetites for soapies and dramas, but we prefer these on our screens not in our political life. With their techno savvy, some of the big money behind them, and their media savvy, COPE really owe us something a lot more imaginative, whether we vote for them or not.

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2009 Elections: COPE banners rock

In a previous post, I was particularly tough on COPE for the absent posters so close to the elections. I have also been irritated with the change in the face of COPE, again, so close to the elections. But those posts are there for you to read (and re-read?) another time.

I still think the Dandalas might be a liability to COPE, but would be very happy to be proved wrong. This past weekend one of the papers carried allegations that Hlomla Dandala, the highly talented, popular and gorgeous actor son of the COPE presidential candidate, Mvume Dandala, had been involved in an altercation with some LRC (previously SRC for you oldies) member on a university campus. All I have to say on the matter is that Dandala junior sure does generate a lot of bad press – pre and post COPE associations. So, he is consistent in getting weekend press coverage for alleged dodgy behaviour.

I have completely changed my mind about COPE visibility, at least in Jozi. The Congress of the People may have taken an eternity to appear, and then surfaced with lame Dandala and Lekota posters on street poles. They may also have produced unnecessarily messy confusion with two faces on the COPE election posters.

And I don’t want to even think about why the Manifesto on the website only appears in Xhosa and English, or why a party as slick as COPE does not have a copy-editor so that we don’t have to read a “summerised manifesto” instead of a summarised one on their website. And I won’t say any more about the strange punctuation of dates. (Yes, I am pedantic about these things as well as paranoid about even the appearance ethnic nationalism.)

But now the Congress of the People have taken over entire low flying bridges and metres of space on the freeway (M1) as well as a brilliantly located three-sided advert just before you cross over the Mandela Bridge from Braamfontein into Newtown. This is some coup because the latecomers are suddenly very visible in the city. I don’t know whether this is true outside of Johannesburg since I saw very few eThekwini naseMgungundlovu (in Durban and Pmburg) when I was there a month ago.

Since my last KZN trip predated the huge COPE banners popping up all over Jozi, other cities could also be in the changed environment. Those driven to comment on this posting, please say something about the COPE posters in your city or part of the country, in addition to whatever else you want to say.

In the city of Gold, there is a huge banner along the Parktown (St Andrew’s) exit on the M1 south, which is also visible when you get onto the M1 north from the Empire/Jan Smuts onramp; another equally big one just before the Grayston off-ramp again on the M1 north. But the best one I have seen covers three sides of a building in Braamfontein. It’s just before the Nelson Mandela bridge on the Braamfontein/Wits side of the bridge. From some angle it looks like it is ON the actual bridge.

So, what’s so cool about the specific COPE ad, and the other ones around the city? First, I like that they are on the freeway because, like the UDM ones that were first to grace the M1 freeway in Jozi, you can’t miss them and they say something about the parties advertised as fast paced, on the go parties, like Jozi itself. The UDM billboards are where ads for products usually are, so they are well placed to draw the drivers’ and passengers’ attention without being reckless and driving into the car in front of you.

COPE has that bright yellow that you can’t miss even from the corner of the eye, and even at night, which helps it stand out when placed on a grey concrete slab. The COPE colours grab you, and the minimalist writing is also quite succesful because you can read the message almost instantly. When you start getting bored with the yellow, the bright blue and/or bright red are sure to get you. The simplicity is both striking and very effective. Thankfully, no politicians’ faces on these ones, so they can be used again, if COPE hang around as a party of the SA political scene. This earns COPE a few stars for enviromental savvy.

They get a few extra stars for Lyndall Shope-Mafole as the Gautend premier candidate as well. The former, Director General at the Dept of Communications, was elected onto the ANC NEC early last year, post-Polokwane, so she clearly had the favour of the new leadership of the ANC. Yet, off she went to join the new kid on the block. A mystery?

Next, COPE get five stars for location, intertextuality, and wit. I am re-tempted to vote for them because I am very entertained. Regular readers know I want to be entertained during electioneering. In a good way too. COPE are making me feel a lot more hopeful that they are all they were cracked out to be at the November convention. Then, they offered the possibility of newness, imaginative platforms and politicking.

They have my attention now because I work near the Nelson Mandela bridge; my office is in Braamfontein. I drive on the M1 to and from work most days of the week. So, just like I have been seeing Holomisa’s face on that banner for months, now I see COPE everywhere. This can be both a good and bad thing.

On the one hand, such location is an advantage because you begin to read and visually ingest these billboards and banners even when you’re not thinking about them. Advertisers know about this sort of thing, which is exactly why they use billboards. Or atleast part of the decision. So, the visuals become part of your natural thinking and life environment, holding your attention even when you don’t realise it, I imagine. Does this mean people can end up feeling it’s quite ‘natural’ to vote for a party they have started to think about as part of their everyday life? Is that a serious stretch? It might be. But maybe not.

On the other hand, the placing may be a handicap because we could grow so accustonmed to seeing these banners and billboards that they fade into the background of our lives. That may also mean we forget about them if they are up too early. They really become like all the other billboards up on the freeway. I can’t really tell you, off the top of my head, what else is up on my route right now. Except for the Dark and Lovely ad with Sonia Mbele/Sedibe, which is on a building face opposite COPE’s ad. That is quite strange, but maybe there are no other billboards and banners on my way to work anymore. Maybe the Zuma posters on every streetpole and lightpole on the freeway (with the Indian cricket and the Lyric Theatre ads in between) have me so overwhelmed that I can’t see anything else. Or, more likely, the regular billboards have faded into the background.

I don’t know what the research says about this, so this is just speculation off the cuff.

Back to the election visibility of COPE. The above is all well and good, but because I live in my head somewhat – both an occupational hazard and one of the reasons some of us are drawn to certain occupations (it certainly is not the renumeration that attracts you to academia) – I have been thinking about the third, huge COPE advert that I see often as I go about my way. Wit draws attention, that’s for sure.

The Braamfontein/Nelson Mandela COPE ad is the best placed strategically. First, the building is visible from Braamfontein, from the CBD and from various interconnecting freeways into/and out of the city. Location is key in terms of maximising impact. Then there is the fact that it is placed next to (and from some angle it seems as though it is ON) the Nelson Mandela bridge. The bridge connects the academic (Wits)/activist (NGO filled Braamfontein Centre) part of Jozi with Newtown, Jozi’s cultural precinct in more ways than geographical. The COPE ad and bridge also hover above the Jozi CBD, again in more than physical ways. There is a confluence of meanings to be read just from where the metaphoric meets the physical.

But placing it on Nelson Mandela bridge is no accident, I am pretty sure. COPE is premised on its links with the liberation movement: in the name choices attempted, the party name settled on, the oft-cited liberation struggle credentials of the leadership (except Linda Odendaal, but that is another blog posting that may never happen), the fact that the website spells out the full name unlike other parties that rely on acronyms, the rampant patriotism and appropriating the colours of the flag for the logo, endless references to defending democracy and the constitution and so on.

What are the odds that the physical link with Mandela is accidental?

Now, when you speak about the poster you really have to literally link Mandela’s name with COPE, even though Mandela is an ANC member. This happens in your language. But it also happens at the level of association.

Can you get better credentials in the public imagination than saying your name next to Nelson Mandela (Bridge)? Or resting on Mandela (Bridge)? I think not.

There are other unsavory associations to be gleaned from the location of the COPE-claimed building, of course. The building (and therefore the advert) is not really on Nelson Mandela bridge, it’s actually on its right. On Mandela’s right? The Black DA?

These unfortunate readings are only suggested when you look at the bridge from up close, as you approach the bridge. But by then it is already too late because the gigantic letters spelling HOPE have got you. And we sure need hope in this country, even when we disagree on which party to turn to for that.

But,
a) since I am still an undecided voter;
b) COPE is not paying me to electioneer, and my days of canvassing for the ANC are in the past; and,
b) I am not an intellectual for sale,

I will be thinking about another party to vote for tomorrow, and there will be a blog on that too.

What fun electioneering offers!