Jacob’s ladder

The ANC in Gauteng has set the cat among the pigeons by saying it wanted to use ex-president Thabo Mbeki and other urbane former and current leaders to help campaign among middle-class voters in the province. President Jacob Zuma, they said, would be deployed to poor and working-class areas. Predictably, this did not go down well with the Luthuli House barons and Zuma's acolytes in the province as the implication was that the president would put off middle-class voters. But why would the people who benefited most from the ANC government have undecided loyalty at the polls?

The 1999 elections was the first time the ANC was on the campaign trail for the national and provincial polls as a governing party. The ruling party had a five-year honeymoon period under Nelson Mandela's leadership to campaign on and it was carrying its crown prince, and anointed heir, Thabo Mbeki to the throne. Mbeki had become ANC president two years before but because of his aloofness and enigmatic ways, people still didn't know much about him.

But the country was alive with excitement and expectation. To capture the mood, the ANC used a hit song by South Africa's biggest female pop stars, Brenda Fassie, as its campaign ditty. Vulindlela, which means "open the gates", was belted out at rallies and campaign trucks traversing the country, and it worked magic. Fassi adapted the lyrics to include a line, which loosely translated meant "make way, Thabo is coming". The ANC faithful lapped it up.

KwaZulu-Natal was at the time a major challenge for the ANC as the Inkatha Freedom Party still maintained control of the province. The party therefore had to rope in the big guns on the election trail and at a rally in Durban at the close of the campaign, both Mandela and Mbeki were the top billings. Brenda Fassie performed live. The stadium roared and gyrated during her performance. At one stage she ran up to Mbeki, jumped on him and locked her legs around his waist. Mbeki looked astonished for a second but quickly adapted and danced with her. It was totally out of kilter with his character, but he went with it.

It was one of the rare occasions when Mbeki let his hair down in public - even though the awkwardness of the moment probably still gives him nightmares. But that what is required on the campaign trail: you have to snap out of your comfort zone and woo people by any means possible. Fassie performed at Mbeki's inauguration - somewhat of an acknowledgment that she helped take him to the people.

President Jacob Zuma on the other hand is a performer himself. He is able to dance in step with any artist performing and can belt out songs to fire up the crowds. He makes his own campaign ditties out of struggle songs, which he adapts to be relevant to the situation at the time.

In the build-up to election 2014, Zuma will no doubt be unleashed and unplugged again at ANC campaign rallies. But there seems to be a growing realisation in some sections of the ANC leadership that this will not be enough to maintain the ANC electoral dominance. Unlike in 2009, Zuma now has a track record in government, one that he will be judged against. And the people who will be doing the most judging will be less inclined to be seduced by a singing and dancing president.

Changing political and economic conditions in South Africa has created an expanding middle class. According to a study of income distribution published by online economics policy forum Econ3x3, the middle class grew from 7.7 million people to 10.4 million between 1993 and 2008. The study's author Justin Visagie says the middle class is usually understood to mean the group of individuals or households who have achieved a certain level of affluence in their lifestyle.

In his research, Visagie defined the affluent middle class as individuals living in households that have an income of between R1,400 and R10,000 per person per month (using after-tax earnings in 2008's prices). Visagie found that the black middle class more than doubled in size, from 2.2 million in 1993 to 5.4 million in 2008. The upper class also became more multiracial, from containing just 19,000 black people in 1993 to 257,000 people 15 years later.

It can be extrapolated that the growth of the middle class is a result of ANC policies, particularly with regard to the rapid expansion of the black middle class. This would include black economic empowerment, access to resources, better education and the ability to upskill and progress in the workplace. So these people, logically, should be grateful to the ANC for their better lot in life - which presumably would be expressed at the polls. Why then are there concerns that the middle class could be straying off to opposition parties?

In an interview with the Sunday Times, the ANC in Gauteng said 25% of registered voters in the province are classified as middle class and live in formerly whites-only suburbs. The ANC in the province wants to hold house meetings and public dialogues to reach out to this constituency. They also planned to use people like Mbeki, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and ANC's second-in-charge Cyril Ramaphosa to interface with middle-class voters in such forums.

Predictably, they have since been rapped on the knuckles by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who says the Gauteng leadership "ran ahead of themselves" by announcing their deployment strategy. He says this will be decided by the ANC headquarters, adding that "there is no constituency or profile of constituency that suits a particular individual".

The Gauteng ANC has consequently issued a statement trying to clarify what they meant and claiming to be misrepresented in the Sunday Times article. Still, they do not deny the comments attributed to their provincial secretary David Makhura about reaching out to the middle class through small forums or that they wanted leaders like Mbeki to help out on the campaign trail. They however dispute the inference drawn by the paper that Zuma is unpopular among the middle class.

Makhura is not a person known for frivolous or untoward statements, and as one of the policy tsars in the ANC, he is highly respected. He is the lead strategist in the province on the election campaign and is therefore reacting to something they are detecting in the analysis of the electorate. And if they sense that a quarter of the province's voting population might not be responsive to the ANC's stock election messaging and campaign strategy, they would have every reason to look for alternate means to reach this constituency in order to keep control of the province.

Gauteng will be one of the battleground provinces in the 2014 election with opposition parties, particularly the Democratic Alliance, making a play to break the ANC's dominance. The capture of the middle class vote is one of they ways they hope to do that.

But why would the middle class turn on the party that helped those of them with working class roots to climb the ladder? The middle class, by its nature, is aspirational and continuously seeks to improve access to wealth and resources. It is also a section of society with access to information via the media, and in the past few years, social media. This means that people in the middle class are informed about current events and most likely develop opinions on these. They are also receptive to messaging from opposition parties about the failures of the ANC government.

It would stand to reason that the middle class would be informed about the litany of crises that plagued the Zuma administration and could have developed negative sentiments about issues such as the excessive spending on the president's Nkandla residence, police brutality, corruption and the Marikana massacre. Zuma himself is not exactly a role model for people wanting to climb the social or corporate ladder. He has no formal education, embraces traditions that entrench female subjugation and homophobia, and has not proved to be a pacesetter. All of these run counter to a class of men and women aspiring to improve and modernise.

Mbeki, on the other hand, would appeal to such people. He is sophisticated, suave, highly educated and refined - all the qualities the aspirant in society would look up to.

During the course of his presidency, Zuma has not made the effort to engage this constituency and keep them onside. Instead by dismissing most scandals as mischief-making on the part of the media, and not doing damage control, he has alienated the people who would ordinarily be the ANC's captive audience.

Gauteng premier and the head of the ANC's campaign committee, Nomvula Mokonyane, who broke ranks with the ANC in her province, says Zuma should remain the face of the ruling party's campaign in every constituency. She said that in any event, people vote for the ANC, not individual leaders, so there was no need for a special strategy for the middle class.

The ANC is also on shaky ground with working class voters, as delivery failures, poverty and rising unemployment causing disenchantment. It now has the additional problem of turbulence in Cosatu possibly disabling its main channel to the working class.

Mokonyane's approach could therefore prove to be short-sighted. The ANC obviously needs to think out of the box to reach out to the two classes of voters that should be its primary constituencies, but are in various states of disillusionment and disenchantment.

In some ways, the ANC has to figure out the way to reach out and appeal to both of these constituencies while not offending any of them; all of it has to be done amid the Cosatu turmoil, the Marikana commission's ongoing revelations, the continuing avalanche of scandals and proliferation of new parties that can attack the ruling party from angles that are different from the perhaps predictably middle-class flavoured attack of the DA.

In such a complex situation, fine-tuning the message to hit the exact notes will become extremely difficult. And the often-used trick of giving the audiences the speech they want is not going to work that easily in the age of instant communication and social networks.

So the ANC has a problem, and a big part of it is a Zuma problem. Their entire 2014 elections campaign may depend on how they contend with it.

One thing is pretty certain: this time, a popular song, no matter how much it gets people dancing and singing along, will not do the trick.

This column appeared in Daily Maverick.