By IAN VON MEMERTY
“You have to drill down into people’s hopes and fears. Our job is to drop the bucket even further down that well. People vote with their emotions.
“You have to know where you can target your message effectively.”
These words were captured in one of several undercover videos in Sri Lanka that were exposed last week. The (suspended) CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the online political partner for Donald Trump’s dirty tricks social media campaign, revealed a long list of “black ops”.
Their methods were dirty, but their understanding of how voters are swayed are crystal clear and very accurate. People vote based on hope and fear, and you can work out who will be most easily swayed by your arguments. So what does that mean for our three major parties in our looming election?
Let’s start with the EFF, who understand mass communication better than anyone else on the political spectrum. The minute Jacob Zuma was gone, Malema had his next move ready. Land redistribution. He knows he doesn’t have a big enough grass-roots infrastructure to spread his message countrywide, so he needs the media to spread his message, and land expropriation means guaranteed constant headlines.
It ticks many boxes for him. He emerges as the “peoples’” fighter, a strong leader, and dangles imaginary carrots of prosperity to those millions of voters who are no better off than they were under apartheid. And so Hope is addressed in a simplistic, headlining grabbing, one-issue way. Great sales technique married to bad policy. Fear? His recent tweets and pursuit of Athol Trollip based on the colour of his skin paint a clear message of racism. The great fear and subcutaneous infection of South Africa is pressed, and its pain is brought to the centre of debate.
“Black lives do not matter because of white power.”
And so the fear and anger of possible EFF voters are stoked. Simple and saleable, even though it is reactionary and unrealistic.
The more difficult message for him is, “The ANC are done, disgraced and dead.”
If he needs the ANC how can they be dead? He is also trusting that this is far too complex for daily discussion and that it will be lost in his story of fighting for right and revenge, even by working with the ANC (and the DA in Tshwane and Joburg).
For the ANC, their message of hope is easy. Our house is now clean, our leader is now honest, we are purging ourselves, and once again we will bring you the freedom that we have always fought to deliver to you. We have been your home and your family – and we are your place of safety. Come home. Better the devil you know! Whether they can achieve that message as countless legal battles (especially Zuma) and governmental enquiries unravel over the next year is their real challenge. But their huge grassroots movement may be large enough to effectively balance the headlines.
Their message of fear is a more complicated choice. Do they embrace or reject Malema’s rising call for rampant racism while trying to stabilise government and kick-start a comatose economy. How do they divert the anger and fear which has recently been aimed at them on to their opponents? Although they will stick to their DA message over the last 15 years which has never let them down, even if it is outdated.
So it is highly likely that we will see a ramped-up message of racism against the DA, and that they will continue the mixture of flirt and fight with Malema, trying to weaken his image of independence by making him an ANC co-operator but also selling him as the “reckless naughty child of our family who will eventually come home”.
The DA has the most difficult job. For three reasons. First, smart mass communications have consistently been their great weakness. As a party they have never learnt to simplify saleable messages. Second, they are going to be battling the “white party” label, which sticks, despite being 10 years out of date. Third, they cannot rely on media headlines: “responsible government” does not grab attention.
So, fear first.
The attack on the EFF should be simple. Malema is Mugabe-in-waiting and the EFF will create a starving broken Zimbabwe here in South Africa. (But if they achieve the miracle and lead a coalition government they will then have to be in bed with that same demi-dictator).
The attack on the ANC should be equally simple – it is dying from corruption and it killing us with its infection. Note to Maimane: it is not dead while it is going to get around 50% of the national vote. Malema can overstate, he is a demagogue who can’t win. You aren’t, and just maybe you can get to that magical 35%. At core, the DA fear message should be, you can choose Zimbabwean-style starvation, or poverty and corruption, or you can vote DA. A simple, effective scare tactic – which speaks to how poor people are feeling.
And hope? There is the DA’s real challenge. There are people who know none of the facts about the DA delivery record. They have to get to potential voters who are desperate for more and a better life. More jobs, more houses, more safety. Better education, better healthcare, better delivery. Stokvels, Sassa pay points, school leavers, Sunday worshippers – they can reach masses of people if they are smart.
The media will chase the headlines, which is Malema’s natural territory, and the ANC government’s ongoing attempts at purging and purification will dominate the news, so the DA is going to have to get its message to voters directly. Repeatedly. Which means that every commuter or social grant recipient needs to have something that repeats that message – every day. It will not be enough to campaign in one-off events across the nation. They will have to find a way to constantly “prime” the voters – capture their interest, and keep it. Which means arming their community campaigners with materials that allow for persuasion. If every DA voter is given enough help to convert one potential voter, then the DA’s job is done.
Cambridge Analytica worked on Brexit and Trump’s campaign – and those unlikely successes mean they know how to win over seemingly impossible odds, by targeting potential voters. They answered the question: who can you win over and how often do you need to repeat and reinforce messages to those people to get them and then keep them onside? Here in SA, we don’t need their dirty tricks of outright lies (though we can expect to see some I am sure), but we need to acknowledge that they know how to hit the political target.
It is an oversimplification, but essentially to win an election you need two arrows. Hope and Fear. And you have to fire those arrows daily and accurately, and you have to choose the right target.
So what are the important things to watch, in this 25-year anniversary election? How the ANC and EFF try to stoke fears about each other, but manage to differentiate their message; and whether the DA finds a way to spread their message of hope. Those could be the arrows which determine who hits the political bull’s-eye in 2018.
And equally important: who is the target? The youth? The unemployed? The angry? The disillusioned? Let battle commence. Like revellers at some medieval jousting tournament, we will ooh and aah, and forget that we are part of the prize. In fact it is our lives that are at stake. We could win the prize or we could take an arrow through the heart, depending on which political arrows hit their targets.