Dispatch From Abroad: Cape Town, South Africa

May 8, 2009

By Alison Chatfield

As Americans witness the close of the first 100 days of President Obama’s term in office, I’ve been busy watching a very different system of politics morph before my very eyes.  Or at least, I’ve seen a lot of political posters.  Posters making dramatic proclamations in multiple languages, posters with posed national leaders in crisp business suits and even crisper smiles, posters with some very controversial color choices.  Basically, there were a lot of posters in Cape Town this April.

Being in South Africa for the re-election of the African National Congress (ANC) Party was not as exciting as it seems.  It was a predictable victory that carried over the same leadership and swept the country with an easy majority of the vote.  What was exciting, however, was the campaign process.  Although all of South Africa, and the world, knew that the ANC would sweep the majority of South African voters in this race, political control over the economically prosperous Western Cape Province, where Cape Town is located, was hotly contested.  In the end, the ANC’s most robust opponent, the Democratic Alliance (DA) Party won the province, leaving many of my American friends to ask me why and how.  Although I’m not sure I can do justice to the depth of the question, I can certainly address an aspect that was prevalent in my day-to-day life in Cape Town.

The campaign process was nothing short of fierce, on a much more ‘on the ground’ level than we see in the States.  Or should I say, in the air.  Political posters here in Cape Town are not simply pieces of cardboard attached to streetlamp poles, they are potent symbols of the ranking of the sixteen parties represented in parliament, ranging from the upstart ANC-breakaway party COPE to the radical South African Communist Party.  Every morning when I walked to class, more and more posters would go up as the elections drew nearer, resulting in a kaleidoscope of colors, slogans, languages, and seemingly trustworthy – if not a tad bit frozen – smiles.  Not only would more and more appear, the ordering of the posters became increasingly metaphorical, with the ANC apparently having more manpower and/or budget (or at least, a taller ladder) than its less powerful competitors, who were physically ranked lower on this totem pole of political importance.

Meaningless sayings such as “Vote to Win” (DA) or illegibly ambiguous graphics (thanks, Inkatha Freedom Party for the lovely visual of an elephant family) left me feeling simultaneously entertained and bored.  My favorite poster strategy was the DA’s effective employ of Barack Obama’s symbol of the road and the setting sun, this time comprised of the colors of the South African flag: red, white, and blue (this is a democracy we’re talking about, after all) and yellow and green…with a suspicious absence of black.  Significant, maybe.  Overanalyzed, definitely, as some newspapers have cited this symbol as the key to the winning votes here in the Western Cape, ignoring the DA’s appeal to the relatively wealthy, liberal constituency who are fed up with ANC leadership and that are the obvious voting pool for the official opposition.

So what about the real issues?  How were they represented on the posters?  It seemed that the bigger the party, the simpler the poster.  The ANC certainly didn’t have to explain itself too much.  South Africans vote for the ANC en masse for various reasons, not the least of which is due to its impressive legacy as the political party who took over in the post-apartheid era.  It is also the party of Nelson Mandela, glorified not only for his accomplishments in office but also for his unwavering selflessness that saw a peaceful transition of democratic power when many South Africans would have been happy to see him stay in office for multiple terms. However, the disappointments of the recently deposed Mbeki administration and the misgivings about Jacob Zuma do much to make the ANC of Mandela look more and more distant from the ANC of today.

In addition to Jacob Zuma’s cocky grin is Helen Zille’s noticeable presence on the poster front this political season.  As Party Leader of the DA, she has been able to maintain power of the Western Cape as well as increase the number of parliamentary seats by twenty and take 12% of the total South African population.  While Hillary’s pantsuits made a stir in the American media, Zille has made a name for herself as a proven leader ranging from her famous 1970s expose about the death of Black Consciousness leader Steven Biko to her recent recognition as World Mayor of the Year of Cape Town.  She certainly looked more approachable in the posters than Jacob Zuma, whose smile does little to improve the image that newspaper headlines on neighboring street lamp poles perpetuate: “Zuma to Marry – Again!” (In reference to his polygamous lifestyle) “Zuma: Showering Prevents AIDS” (He did say that he showered after sex with an HIV positive woman in order to avoid contracting the disease) and “Zuma a Rapist?!” (Oh yes, the previously mentioned woman also claimed he sexually assaulted her, but he was later acquitted).

It worried me how often the political posters were mentioned by residents of my neighborhood, even in jest, yet the real issues were only discussed by those truly dedicated to researching the issues.  In this way, politics is the same as in every country, with some citizens taking it upon themselves to make an informed decision when voting and others who take politics at face value and vote based on things like advertising strength alone.  Thankfully I was lifted out of my cynicism by attending an impassioned public debate held at the University of Cape Town that hosted major political leaders from the four largest parties, the ANC, the DA, COPE, and the Independent Democrats.  The student turnout was great, and the insightful questions asked by the crowd were compelling.  With clouds of corruption marring the relationship between the ANC government and the people of South Africa, the future of this fledgling democracy is unclear.  As much as I found the importance of the street lamp posters to be amusing, they can be seen as a tangible assurance that although democracy might not be completely well, it is still very much alive here in South Africa.  In the end, it is up to the young people of South Africa to read past the slogans if their nation is to continue to uphold its new democratic tradition.

Alison is a junior in the Elliott School majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in International Development Studies.  She is also pursuing a minor in Sociocultural Anthropology.  She has been abroad for the year, studying at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey in the fall and is a current student at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

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