Election campaign slogans fascinate me because of the challenge they present to political communication. They set the tone of a party’s campaign while at the same time communicating the election manifesto’s promises. The very best ones are layered with subtext, social, political and cultural references, and are emotionally resonant across an as broad population as possible – all of this in just a few words. Obama’s “Change we can believe in” and the chant, “Yes we can” was the most memorable of recent times. His entire 2008 presidential campaign was captured in these five words and, best of all, it was exactly what America wanted to hear at the time.
The African National Congress’s 1994 election slogan, “A better life for all”, was perhaps the most memorable in post-Apartheid South Africa and all others since, including those from opposition parties, have been some kind of variation on that theme. In the book, Posters, Propaganda, And Persuasion In Election Campaigns And Around The World And Through History, Steven Seidman tells of how Stan Greenberg, who helped with Bill Clinton’s presidential election in the United States two years earlier, advised the Mandela campaign in 1994. Greenberg used focus groups to determine the campaign’s main theme: that the ANC was an “agent of change,” not a “liberation movement.” The campaign was a resounding success, softening the image of Mandela and the ANC, and bringing together a nation previously divided. The promise of the five words, a better life for all, may have been a bit of a no-brainer, but it was the carry-through of the rhetoric into all the party’s communications that immortalised it and, interestingly, set the standard question by which development in post-Apartheid is measured in discourse: has life really become better for all?
With a few weeks to go before the 2011 local government elections and a couple of days before Freedom Day, I was curious about how far election slogans have come in South Africa. Do slogans for these elections show that they were developed with the level of craft required or are parties falling back on trite political rhetoric?
The ANC’s 2011 local government election slogan, “Together, we can build better communities”, is neither here nor there. To start, it is the same one from the party’s 2006 campaign. It promises greater cooperation between government and communities, but ignores that the ANC has controlled many of the municipalities where these communities live. It calls attention, in a very Eye of Sauron-esque way, to questions such as: what has the ANC been doing up to now and does it mean that it has failed in its 2006 promise to work closely with communities (and now wants another shot)? Maybe a slight tweak was needed to update the slogan for 2011: “With you, we continue to build better communities”. It may be a bit wordy, but from there, the party could have attempted to build a case to counter accusations that has failed South Africa – which is what it tries to do anyway in its election manifesto. As it stands now, the message lacks a connection to the rest of the campaign.
The slogan also ignores realities. Given the service delivery protests of the past couple of years, the latest culminating in the brutal murder of Andries Tatane by police, and the building anger over the ANC’s failings, it’s clear that many communities have stayed the same or become worse. A self-critical message that expresses a willingness to do better may have been a better option. South Africans are notoriously forgiving and in a year where opposition parties are projected to make significant inroads into ANC strongholds, promising more of the same was a wasted opportunity for some much-needed repositioning. The uninspiring, rehashed slogan is perhaps reflective of the level of disorganisation that’s plagued the party’s election campaign this time around.
Speaking of the opposition, the Democratic Alliance has gone on the charm offensive with their “We deliver for all” slogan. It’s tactically brilliant. It is a leap and a mile away from the overly negative (“Stop Zuma” and “Fight back”) and nondescript (“Vote to win”) slogans of old. Sure, it’s a flagrant appropriation of “A better life for all”, but that’s what makes it so smart. It’s direct dig (without being negative) at one of the ruling party’s biggest failings, the inability to deliver on promises made. The slogan accompanied by the Cape Town story makes, for the first time, a legitimate case for the party as government. It does, however, have a hint of over-selling. The party, according to its leader Helen Zille, promises delivery for all men and women, for the poor and the euphemistic “better off”, for blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites, for workers and for entrepreneurs, for those without any work, for people living with disabilities and for people of all religions. But reality tells us that resources are limited and that the rich and the poor have different, often divergent needs and priorities. Blacks and whites in South Africa still (mostly) live in very different socio-economic circumstances. Workers clash with big business and government every year precisely because of opposing interests. It’s a gargantuan a promise to say, then, that you will deliver for all.
The other failing of the DA’s slogan is in its emotional resonance. It relies on a barrage of “DA facts” to convince voters that it delivers whereas the ANC continues to stir the commonly held sentiment that the DA caters to rich whites. So far, the ANC’s play for emotions has trumped the DA’s rational appeals.
ANC offshoot, Congress of the People, is contesting its first local elections and while it has no shortage of slogans and catchphrases in its communications (seriously, just look their manifesto), none comes to the fore as the slogan for the 2011 local government elections. And the Inkatha Freedom Party’s slogan “It’s about you” is quite shrugworthy. I find myself asking the few times I see it: What, exactly, is about me?
While the clear winner here is the DA’s slogan for its strategic brilliance, it is also clear that slogans, for these elections at least, were not viewed with the importance they ought to have been. A good election slogan in itself may not win an election, but because it is the end result of a well thought-out communication strategy, it often gives a good indication of who is on their way into office and who is on their way out.