The DA’s hopes burned up with the flag


The DA’s hopes burned up with the flag

Communications practitioner IKE BOSS argues that ‘being right' is not good enough when trying to convince would-be voters.

  • 24 May 2024
  • Free Speech
  • 9 min to read
  • article 9 of 18
  • Ike Boss

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

I WAS challenged recently on my criticism of party-political messaging, after I argued strongly against the DA’s flag-burning ad. My conversation partner wanted to know what I propose “the DA message” should be. In this final week of the election campaign, the question is really what the DA message should have been. This is more of a reflection than a suggestion, and in any event, I do not propose to provide a political campaign messaging series in this commentary; I propose to indicate the considerations that should inform effective and efficient messaging to make the target audience see things your way and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

My criticism of the flag-burning ad was, briefly, this: burning the flag is one of the strongest free speech expressions possible, and I am a great supporter of this powerful statement. BUT, an excellent message may not have purchase in specific theatres, and an accomplished communicator will align message and effect.

Successful communication is easily measured, and I repeat: it gets the target audience to see things your way and adjust their behaviour accordingly. All other communication is costly failure. The answer to “did the ad gain DA voters?" is also the answer to “was the flag-burning ad good communication?"

I am in a group advising seven individual politicians from five different political parties on messaging … without finding much acceptance for our advice. Yet, I despair not, as I find no evidence either that the advice of the formidable Collette Schulz-Herzenberg and Robert Mattes is heeded. Nor, I hasten to add, is any of the advice of the political scientists I shall mention in observable use by South African politicians. (C Schulz-Herzenberg and RB Mattes, 2023, It takes two to toyi-toyi: one-party dominance and opposition party failure in South Africa’s 2019 national election.)

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The sole objective of every political communication is to gain votes. If gain is at risk, the first rule of political communications is silence.

Schulz-Herzenberg and Mattes note that disillusioned voters either exit the electorate or switch their votes if they can identify a viable alternative. The blinking neon sign says that party growth — increased votes — can only come from this source. It is neither neurosurgery nor rocket science. It isn’t string theory or quantum discipline. (For those readers somewhat foggy about my point, I am attempting to indicate that it is obvious.)

New entrants to the electorate can be reached by the same messaging coigned for switchers. (“Coigning a phrase” is a play on the term “coining a phrase”, signalling deliberate and careful drafting to create a pungent, hard-hitting expression, and “coigne”, an architectural term referring to a projecting corner or angle.) Those who have exited require messaging I shall not address here to bring them within reach. Your message either switches people to your brand (successful messaging), makes people stay put (failed messaging) or offends people into rejecting your brand (disastrous messaging).

Three considerations, say Schulz-Herzenberg and Mattes, are required to bring switchers around, and I deviate somewhat from their definitions of these motivations in an attempt to indicate my understanding of the demands for best-fit messaging:


Switchers are attracted to parties perceived to be inclusive — representative of all South Africans. I propose that this is assessed, among other factors, by considering the willingness and ability to work with other parties. It is clear that the DA has decided not to work with the EFF, the MK and the PA. It feigns never to work with the ANC, and is extremely critical of the ANC and all other parties it considers to be aligned or attuned with the ANC. The DA even struggles to find common ground with its Multi-Party Charter allies. It does not provide a mental image of “unifying” or  “inclusive”. The DA’s current call is something like “different and better” but should perhaps be “similar, but better”.

Flawed messaging may well confirm support for the criticised politician or party, or move voters to exit the electorate. Such votes are lost to the inept political communicator.


It is generally accepted that the DA wins most accolades for “good governance” and that DA local governments have a significantly better service-delivery record than all other local governments. By the metrics, the City of Cape Town is the best-run metro in South Africa. However, running the Western Cape (the province with the least apartheid baggage) and the metro (a city with a CBD and several suburbs that are well governed while other suburbs are notoriously dangerous and neglected) does not appear to be convincing. Had “good governance” been the determinant, the DA would probably have ascended to national power already. Perhaps the fact that Cape Town had previously been governed adequately by the ANC, and perhaps the wanting DA governance record in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg, erodes and strains trust in the DA's ability.


A party with a white chairperson (elected unopposed as recently as 2023); a white federal leader (who defeated a black opponent by a landslide in 2023); a white premier; and white metro mayors (of whom one was preferred to a competent coloured predecessor) does not make an attractive election poster. It does not say “electable" or strike voters as charismatic, compelling or popular. It strikes them as ethnically exclusive, and may repel.

The Mamphela Ramphele fiasco did not help. The departures of Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mbali Ntuli were damaging, as was the loss of Mmusi Maimane — much greater than ever acknowledged. Herman Mashaba left, as did Bongani Baloyi, Nqaba Bhanga, Makashule Gana, Patricia Kopane, Khume Ramulifho and Ghaleb Cachalia. Perhaps less damaging were the departures of Patricia de Lille and Phumzile van Damme, but still, these were black faces exiting. Joe Seremane is no more. Wilmot James left. Mpho Phalatse was humiliated. Dan Plato defected.

Schulz-Herzenberg and Mattes are clear: “… the ‘who’ a party stands for (in terms of racial identity) may be as, or more important to voters than ‘what’ (policy) they stand for, or at least provide a cue to the policies they stand for. As such, perceptions of attributes are likely to be less ephemeral and more stable than voter evaluations of government performance, candidates, or policy positions.”

The challenge is to say the right thing right, first time, to the right audience, at the right time, in the right medium. Or lose the match by own goals.

“Being right” is not the prime determinant of successful political communication. When you have to explain what you meant at the time you said what you now say you didn’t mean when you said what you said, you have a problem. The justification for the flag ad is an excellent example of this conundrum:

“The criticism is manufactured outrage only.” Not our bad. Their bad. Unbelievable. Listen up, y'all, it’s an election. Everybody’s manufacturing. Perhaps deny 'em bricks and mortar? How’s that for an idea?

“It was an electronic image only.” Really?! Oh, well, that’s OK then.

“Really, people need to wake up to metaphorical speak.” Are you even hearing yourself? This multiplies the damage. People are too dumb to get your messaging? This is what you want to say? This is what is heard, mind.

“The ANC has been burning ‘everything’ for 30 years …” Are you shitting me?! Us and them is what you want to raise right now?

“We have nothing to apologise for.” Of course not, Helen, of course not. You are always right.

Says neuroscientist Drew Weston, “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Although the marketplace of ideas is a great place to shop for policies, the marketplace that matters most is the marketplace of emotions … The data from political science are crystal clear: people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings; not the candidate who presents the best arguments.” (2008, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.)

Another neuroscientist, Taly Sharot, adds, “Data has only a limited capacity to alter strong opinions. Established beliefs can be extremely resistant to change, even when scientific evidence undermining those beliefs is provided … Presenting people with information that contradicts their opinion can cause them to come up with altogether new counterarguments that further strengthen their original view; this is known as the ‘boomerang effect’ … More intelligent people have a greater ability to rationalise and interpret information at will, and to creatively twist data to fit their opinions. Counterevidence does not necessarily change minds.” (2017, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others.)

The DA has an unfortunate record of critical messaging mistakes. Helen Zille's colonialism texts of 2017 are probably one of the great political messaging failures of all time, thoroughly trumping, for example, Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 gaffe, “The only thing the French love more than revolutions are holidays," a quip seen as dismissive and disrespectful, and alienating many voters. It is difficult to come back from such mistakes; the flag-burning flak is a lesser example.

BrewDog’s James Watt hits hard with, “All brands are now owned and shaped by the consumer, and you, the business owner, are merely along for the ride. Managing a brand today is like being in the passenger seat of a rally car with the world at large behind the steering wheel in a headstrong mood. Your brand is the collated gut instinct of the world at large towards your company and everything you do.” (2015, Business for Punks.)

In this roller-coaster world on steroids, stocked with deepfake and flying dead cats and Potemkin fronts, one must communicate effectively and efficiently. It’s probably the greatest challenge of the time.

Said Macbeth, “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral in a moment? No man." No, Thane of Glamis; Thane of Cawdor! I am calling for this “man”!

May 29 will answer the communications question. For the sake of my grandchildren, I fervently wish that the obvious lessons, and a number of lesser ones, may be learned, and that a political initiative with intent and comprehensive diverse abilities may rise from that day on and unite, by its messaging, a majority across the South African divide to deliver a South Africa great, for once, for now, for ever more.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.